By: Jude Lobo
The term “freedom of the press” is (loosely) defined as the understanding that communication and expression through various media should be considered a right to be exercised freely. Such mediums include (but are not limited to) printed and electronic materials, with a particular emphasis on materials created with the intention of being shared with the public at large. Central to the denotation of this principle is the implied absence of coercion from state or state sponsored actors, not only from the released media product but also in its initial inception and creation (Freedom House).
Why is such a principle so important in the first place? Firstly, one will be hard pressed to consider a free press corps as an ultimate good in and of itself. It will come as a surprise to no one that both written and electronic media outlets are far from being considered bastions of altruism. All media outlets are, at their core, profit seeking entities. Thus, contrary to what one may believe, the truth is not in their best interest, but only increased engagement with their various media products. With this truth in mind, it is not hard for one to draw a causal link between profit and the perpetuation of discord. As is agreed by many experts ranging from Political Science to Communication Studies, unbridled press corps can often be attributed to enormous public angst (Tsfati 10). For example, divisive ideologies may proliferate, youth may be corrupted before they properly learn how to disseminate information, and even the public at large may be nefariously manipulated, despite their best interests. Amid such circumstances, how could the state not be justified in strongly regulating or even suppressing the press corps?
In light of this line of thinking, one should note that while such concerns are valid, they misunderstand the point. The right to a free press makes no assumptions on the content or quality of that which it facilitates. Rather, in protecting such a right, what is being defended is not what is being discussed, but the very forum of discussion itself, ensuring that it is open and conducive for public engagement. Thus, crudely summarized, a Free Press is not in itself valuable. Rather, the value in such a vehicle lies in its inherent ability to facilitate criticism, both of the government and of society at large (Charles Koch Institute).
This is also the reason why even avowedly liberal governments may find themselves at odds with the principle of ‘Freedom of the Press”. The private institutions who champion this principle naturally come to embody all that power abhors, power both new and entrenched. While this fact has been studied and proven extensively, it is also intuitive, for power does not respond well to criticism (Freedom House).
For a real-world example of such behavior, one need look no further than Belarus. Often referred to as ‘Europe’s Last Dictatorship’, suppression of what little freedom the nation’s press corps had manage to secure for itself was brutally suppressed and continues to be suppressed amidst the ongoing protests surrounding President Alexander Lukashenko’s administration. One of the most shocking displays of suppression came in May of 2021, when the Belarusian government grounded an international Ryanair flight bound for Vilnius, arresting the Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich. Photographs taken nearly two months after his arrest suggest that Protasevich had been subject to various methods of torture during his time in government custody (Tétrault-Farber 2).
While not many efforts to suppress the freedom of a nation’s press corps are quite as shockingly blatant as those that have occurred in Belarus in recent months, such activity is by no means unique to Belarus. In the neighboring country of Russia, it is not uncommon for reporters to receive letters directly from the Kremlin, requesting their immediate resignation. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for publicly funded Russian companies to buyout majority stakeholders in various private media companies, companies that often have no immediate relation to the nature of their work (Corbus 11). For example, the largest stakeholder of REN-TV, widely lauded as Russia’s last nationwide television network with independent news programming, is owned by a subsidiary of Severstal, Russia’s second largest government owned steel company, in a buyout first initiated in 2006 (Kishkovsky 4).
On must realize that the protection of a free press is a constant war rather than a one-off battle. While government authorities are often its traditional enemies, in the modern age one must realize that everyone is a threat to its existence. Anyone can create content with the power to influence anyone. Thus, even in a liberal society, the integrity of the press corps can be eroded, and furthermore, such erosion can often be manipulated to seem in the public’s best interest.
For example, with regards to internet regulation laws in the United States, news aggregating applications are simultaneously being projected as biased against conservatives, and much too willing in the promotion of far-right ideology, divisive ideology which at once finds a home within conservative bases (Samples 11). Thus, what is to be done? How much regulation is enough? How much is too much? How much is too little? How is one to balance the ideal of a free and open medium with a medium that is far too open to manipulation? These are open questions that must be asked on a continuous basis by all who truly believe themselves to be true defenders of democracy and its associated liberal ideals. For, threats to a free press can as easily come from within, via popular legislation, or they may come from without, via tyrannical government.
Beyond becoming a critical consumer of media rhetoric and policy, as is outlined above, what else may one do to further ensure that the Freedom of the Press is respected? Hundreds, if not thousands of journalists are unjustly imprisoned across the world every year for nothing other than simply making their opinions known to the world. While such a phenomenon certainly is not new, the advent of digital activism ensures that everybody can express solidarity with these victims of conscience, ensuring that justice is done to them and their cause. Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign often highlights the plights of several political prisoners, among whom several are often journalists or those specifically targeted by their governments for their views (Write for Rights).
All are encouraged to participate in such events, as it is only through these individual initiatives that lasting change and protection for the many may be realized.
Image Attribution: Maxim Shemetov / Reuters