The executions of journalist James Foley last month and Steven Sotloff days ago have sparked debate not only on the tragedies that occurred, but also on the opportunity to place limits on the right to freedom of information: Should images of executions be broadcast? CNN, for example, raised the issue.

Source: published on Cilck Orlando, courtesy Dan Shakal
The case of Jame Foley: information freedom and rights collision.

It is an interesting argument, because we naturally assume that there should be no limitations on rights, when in practice what happens is actually the opposite: since we live in a society, and our actions need to coalesce with the actions of others, we constantly give up and limit our rights for the common good of society. This happens in cases as simple as limiting one’s right to drive wherever they want and respecting the rules of the road, and in more extreme cases such as the topic of discussion here. Is there a limit to freedom of information? Yes. Is there a limit to freedom of expression? Yes.

What is the solution for a collision of rights?

In this case, the question is how to make reporting on a tragic story, like the murder of a human being, compatible with other criteria, such as:

  • Not giving “free publicity” to the murderers.
  • Not offending viewers (which nowadays only seems to apply to sensitivity to violence, even though other aspects of the private sector should also be treated with the same discretion).
  • Showing a steadfast respect for human dignity.
  • Avoid causing a sensation of collective panic.

The list could be longer, but one thing is clear: there is no magic formula to decide when and where a given right should be limited for the greater good. Once the criteria are identified, it always comes down to the prudential decision of each individual, which must be made quickly. There are no universal or automatic responses, which opens the door for debate. But the first step is for us to accept that “not anything goes,” and that sometimes saying “no” is actually a positive expression of freedom.


Joan Fontrodona, Business EthicsJoan Fontrodona is professor and chairman of business ethics department and academic director of the IESE Center for Business in Society.

He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy (University of Navarra) and an MBA in Management (IESE Business School).