Is Freedom of the Press Critical to Democracy?
November 3, 2022
It has long been thought that having a press that actively covers the political happenings of the world is essential for democratic governance, supported by the UN’s decision to recognize the freedom of the press as “a cornerstone of democratic societies.” While an unrestricted media has the power to criticize and challenge the current government holding power, the process of democratization depends on the freedom of the press because a free press can serve to create a public that is well-informed, serve as an independent voice to hold the government accountable, as well as serve as a medium for the free and open exchange of ideas.
First and foremost, a free and independent press helps to educate the people and therefore the voting population on current issues. Democracy thrives when voters understand the issues at hand and what policies and politicians best represent their best interests through informed political socialization. Without adequate protections in place to ensure a free press, the people are at the mercy of politicians and special interest groups seeking to influence elections. A free media aids the process of analyzing information, cross-referencing sources, and providing an outlet for further discussion. Although access to information is widespread in most developed countries, all of this would be incredibly inefficient for most people. Strong media protections make it so that people have ready access to the collective research of large institutions and professionals in the field, as well as a variety of perspectives on current issues. Everyone benefits when the public is better informed. Thus, access to factual and accurate information provided by independent media are critical to prosperous and secure democratic societies.
Secondly, a free press serves as a watchdog to keep the current government accountable. An independent and diverse media landscape builds a society in which those in power are held to the good will standards of the public. When the freedom and independent nature of the press is harmed, it is much harder to hold our government accountable when it missteps or overreaches. It’s often the case that we learn of corruption and misdemeanors by our representatives or other authorities through a free press, which is only possible because the press is not beholden to any government authority or external entity.
Instances of torture, discrimination, corruption or misuse of power many times have come to light because of the work of investigative journalists. Therefore, this role of the press as a bulwark against the tyranny of the government is key to a functioning, healthy democracy. When the press is able to examine and question the actions of the government, everyone in favor of just political democracy benefits.
Thirdly, the press provides an outlet for the free exchange of ideas and beliefs. So long as one does not have the interest of harming others in mind, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that, “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Through the medium of the press, a wide multiplicity of voices are given a medium to circulate opinions, information, and ideas. It is often through the media which citizens and interest groups participate in the affairs of its government, letting their elected officials and the general public know about what they believe in. Therefore, freedom of expression allotted by an open press is key to forming a vibrant civil society. Furthermore, it is through the freedom of expression allotted by an open and independent press that citizens engage in political participation, and make their constituencies and voices known to their governments, as well as to the world at large. In contrast, different methods of control and censorship of ideas are often key indicators of a repressive government. Through utilization of a free and independent press, people are able to express their opinions about how they are governed and try to further influence the binding decisions governments make on behalf of their citizens.
However, it is no secret that many governments around the world seek to limit or even fully prohibit full freedom of the press. One could argue that, if the press has the power to investigate and report back on information that could paint a nation’s government in an unfavorable light, that this power would be used to hurt the legitimacy of the State. By this way of thinking, those seeking to limit the press’ ability to question the actions taken by their government are only seeking to protect their own interests and national security.
Still, by choosing to censor and control the flow of information, governments take away citizen’s rights to freely express themselves. Additionally, the media also plays a critical function serving as a watch-dog on the government. Even if a state’s government truly has the citizen’s best interests at heart, the public should have access to a medium promoting accountability and transparency of its representatives. Thus, a free and independent press can actually bolster the legitimacy of a well-functioning government and exemplify the misdeeds of governments that harbor corruption and infringe upon the civil liberties of their citizens.
Therefore, despite the fact that an independent press may report negatively upon and undermine the legitimacy of governments which fail in their eyes to uphold their duty to the people, a free and independent media is integral to the process of democratization and good governance because of how the press can encourage the process of political socialization through the spread of information, hold governments accountable for their actions, as well as serve as a medium for the free expression and exchange of ideas.
Despite the ubiquitous belief that a largely free and unrestrained media environment is essential to ensuring democratic freedom on a larger scale, according to several prominent sources, freedom of the press on a global scale has been deteriorating. Among Free countries in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report, 19 percent (roughly 16 countries) have endured a reduction in their press freedom scores over the past five years. This is consistent with a key finding of institutions that report on the nature of governments around the world—that although the number of democracies around the world may be increasing, these governments are undergoing a reduction in political rights and civil liberties. Several crises, from the coronavirus pandemic to increased political polarization around the globe have serious consequences for journalism and global press freedom. Failure to provide protection of a free and independent press is linked to a global decline in democracy itself as press freedom is both a “symptom and contributor” to the breakdown of other democratic institutions and principles.
Perhaps the most immediate example of a state that seeks to limit the independence and non-cooperative influence of the press is China. As shown by China’s rank of 177 in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, and its ranking of 0/4 to represent access free and independent media according to Freedom House, freedom of the press in China is a privilege, not a right. The People’s Republic of China is home to one of, if not the world’s most restrictive media environments. The CCP maintains control over news reporting via direct ownership of press institutions, accrediting journalists, instituting harsh penalties for reports that are critical of party leaders or the CCP, and daily directives to media outlets and websites that guide coverage of breaking news stories. State management of the communications network enables the blocking of websites, removal of smartphone applications from the domestic market, and mass deletion of social media posts and user accounts.
Thus, fair and open political socialization is not upheld because the only information the public has access to is the information approved by the CCP. Furthermore, Reporters Without Borders has identified China as the ‘biggest jailer’ of news journalists. This has only been exacerbated by the pandemic as seven journalists are still being held for their coverage of the pandemic, and 450 social media users were arrested briefly for sharing “false rumors” of the virus. Hence, China’s government does not allow for a free press to serve as a check or monitor the government’s proceedings.
Lastly, China’s numerous methods of censorship and advanced techniques to prevent the spread of information mean that China’s people have no outlet to fully express their beliefs. The regime in China has worked to close off the last remaining avenues for accessing uncensored information by increasing pressure on private technology companies to police the content on their platforms more assiduously. In all, the strategies Chinese officials, state media, and other actors employ to exercise influence over media around the world have the potential to undermine features of democratic governance and practices for media freedom.
This is in contrast to the “newsroom at the edge of autocracy” in Hong Kong. In his article, author Timothy McLaughlin explains the importance of the Hong Kong press, and specifically the South China Morning Post and its role in informing us about the nature of press freedom as China expands its global influence. Due to the “one country, two systems” framework that has separated Hong Kong from China, journalism is usually far less censored and far more open in Hong Kong than in the mainland. While Hong Kong has historically been very “loud and boisterous” in its media, since the advent of protests in the summer of 2019, the government in Hong Kong has sought to curb journalist’s freedoms. What has resulted is a power clash between SCMP’s more critical past and the instruction of Beijing and senior editors that have forced the media outlet to reexamine its identity. Furthermore, through Hong Kong’s history as a political and cultural intersection between China and the United Kingdom, and the nature of the transfer of power from the latter to the former, we see the government’s stance on a free and independent media shift dramatically.
While United Kingdom has no constitutional guarantee of press freedom, it has a long history of a “free, inquisitive press,” currently ranking 33rd in the World Press Freedom Index. (RSF) The media environment is lively and competitive, containing viewpoints spanning the political spectrum. This ensures open and free political socialization as individuals have access to a variety of sources, opinions, and responsibly sourced information to gain more insight into the world’s major happenings.
Furthermore, the publicly owned British Broadcasting Corporation, which does rely on dedicated license fees for the majority of its funding, is editorially independent and competitive with its commercial counterparts. The independence of the media in the United Kingdom means that, for the most part, the government is held accountable through the press. Although sadly, there has been growing hostility towards journalism in the United Kingdom in recent years stemming from current government leaders, it can be argued that an environment of discourse is much better than the alternative where the government aims to shut out civil society altogether and make disagreements between the government and the media nonexistent.
Lastly, while broadcast media in the United Kingdom is regulated, it is dones so by a regulatory body independent of the government and the broadcasters in the Office of Communications. Ofcom regulates sources for accuracy, bias, and impartiality. Thus, while the flow of information is regulated, citizens do have a medium to express themselves provided that equal representation is given to competing political interests (as seen in the runtime distribution of electoral candidates) and that the information being shared is factually accurate. Thus, while the UK still has progress to make in terms of implementing further protections and removing limitations on journalism, it exemplifies that freedom of expression and access to factual and accurate information provided by independent media are foundational to prosperous and secure democratic societies.
However, for most countries, a “free and independent” press usually comes with a number of strings attached. Yet what we can ascertain from this observation, is that the greater amount of freedom a state allows its press, the generally more protective they are of a citizen's political rights and civil liberties.
Mexico ranks 144th on the World Press Freedom Index, and has a free press score of 2/4 according to Freedom House. Mexico’s citizens have access to a variety of media outlets to source their information from, as well as fight to make internet access for citizens a civil right. However, freedom of the press in Mexico comes with the massive caveat of harboring perhaps one of the most dangerous environments for journalists in the world. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) named Mexico the deadliest country for journalists in 2020, and as of November 2021 CPJ had recorded the deaths of at least three journalists in Mexico.
Reporters probing police issues, drug trafficking, and official corruption face serious, sustained risk of physical harm. Illegal collusion between government officials and organized crime groups pose a severe and immediate threat to journalists’ safety. Journalists who cover sensitive political topics or crime, especially at the local level, are warned, threatened and then often “gunned down in cold blood.” Therefore, while some information is widespread, the role of a free media to hold the actions of the government accountable to the public is not upheld, and the kind of information one is able to express is subject to the will of organized crime bosses and government officials.
So, knowing that a free press is central to the process of democratization, what can we do to make sure a fair and independent media is upheld? Firstly, we can recognize and speak out against illicit tactics, policymakers and high-level officials should continue to be on high alert and advocate for the discontinuation of laws, practices, and rhetoric that negatively impact media freedom. Next, we can watch vulnerable media markets to prevent illiberal co-optation, as seen in the example of Mexico. Prevent the deep intertwine of political and economic interests in order to ensure that the media is truly independent. Lastly, we can advocate for the value of a free press, and all of the virtues it has on protecting a fair democracy.
The role of the freedom of the press as a key pillar of democracy is nothing new. Thomas Jeffreson once stated that, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” This has certainly proved true for most countries in the present day, as the relationship between a free press and other democratic rights and civil liberties often depend on a free press to be upheld and preserved among the public. While it is discomforting to see that the role of a free and independent press has been undermined in many regions around the world today, advocacy for free media is something that will never be extinguished. As long as governments have the capacity to ensure that this key freedom is protected, there will be no shortage of those willing to support its cause.
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