|Media and Politics (8160512) / 3b
FREEDOM OF PRESS
"Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."
QUESTIONS TO REVIEW
Briefly define the term press freedom.
Briefly explain the limits of press freedom.
Why a fragile democracy and a weak economy put many obstacles to free speech?
For the watchdog role, what should mass media have to value?
Briefly explain why freedom of the press is assumed to be a necessity to any democratic society?
How and why a fragile democracy and a weak economy put obstacles to free speech?
Freedom of the press or press freedom is the guarantee by a government of free public press for its citizens and their associations, extended to members of news gathering organizations, and their published reporting. Press freedom also extends to the process of news gathering, and processes involved in obtaining information for public distribution.
Free and independent press is an essential indicator of the democratic maturity of a society.
The right to freedom of press and information is intrinsically (essentially) linked to the citizens' right to know, which is the basis for making well-informed decisions. The possibility to express freely ideas and opinions enhances (improves) public dialogue and therefore stimulates (inspires) the development of the democratic process in society.
Mass media of the democratic world enjoy great freedom under the Constitutions, which forbid the governments from impinging (interrupting) on expression. The first example of these Constitutions is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Even so, the freedom has limits. In democratic countries, when the constitutional guaranty of free press runs against the constitutional guaranty of a free trial, of privacy and protection of private life, or of the right of rectification (minor adjustment) and reply, there is a conflict of values that must be resolved. This is also true when the mass media violate someone’s right, which, although not an explicit (open and clear) constitutional guarantee has come to be recognized as a basic human right.
Moreover, sometimes the implementation of press freedom differs.
It appears that some governments could even ignore the constitution and put their own restrictions on free expression because it did not apply to them. In addition, not all countries are protected by a bill of rights or the constitutional provision pertaining to freedom of the press. For example, Australians have nothing to do neither with the constitution nor with the freedom of the press.
Basic Principles and Criteria
In Western democracies freedom of the press implies that all people should have the right to express themselves in writing or in any other way of expression of personal opinion or creativity.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights indicates:
“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 regardless of frontiers.”
The concept of freedom of the press is often covered by the same laws as freedom of speech, thereby giving equal treatment to media and individuals. This philosophy of freedom is usually accompanied by legislation ensuring various degrees of freedom of scientific research, publishing, press and printing/or press freedom. The depth to which these laws are entrenched (well established) in a country's legal system can go as far down as its constitution.
With respect to governmental information, a government distinguishes (differentiates) which materials are public or protected from disclosure (release) to the public. This differentiation is based on classification of information as sensitive, classified or secret and being otherwise protected from disclosure due to significance (importance) of the information to protecting the national interest.
Many governments are also subject (issue) to freedom of information legislation that is used to define the circuit (sphere) of national interest.
The Media as the Fourth Estate
The development of the Western media tradition is rather parallel to the development of democracy in Europe and the United States.
The notion of the press as the fourth estate in Europe and as the fourth and/or fifth branch of government in U.S. is sometimes used to compare the press (or media) with Montesquieu’s three powers of government, namely an addition to the legislative, the executive and the judiciary branches. Edmund Burke, who served for many years in the British House of Commons as a member of the Whig Party, is quoted to have said: "Three Estates in Parliament; but in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a fourth estate more important far than they all".
On the ideological level, the first advocates of freedom of the press were the liberal thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries. They developed their ideas in opposition to the monarchist tradition in general and the divine right of kings in particular.
These liberal theorists argued that freedom of expression was a right claimed by the individual and grounded in natural law. 1 Thus, freedom of the press was an integral part of the individual rights promoted by liberal ideology.
Freedom of the press was (and still is) assumed by many to be a necessity to any democratic society.
Other lines of thought later argued in favor of freedom of the press without relying on the controversial (disputed) issue of natural law; for instance, freedom of expression began to be regarded as an essential component of the social contract. 2
Parallel with the concept of press freedom, the term fourth estate remains for all journalistic activity today. However, the press is not part of the governmental structure; but monitors the other branches (the legislative, the executive and the judiciary) as an external check on behalf of the people.
This impact of the press as a skeptical and critical monitor the other branches of government on behalf of the people is the watchdog role of the press. For this role, mass media have to value its traditional, high standards for accuracy, sourcing and objectivity.
Independence of the Media
The freedom of the press is in fact a matter of a balance between the desire of the authorities to control the media and the ability of the media to resist such attempts.
This balance is closely tied to the independence of the media. So the concept of independence (including economic independence) of the press is one closely linked with the concept of press freedom.
This link explains why a fragile (breakable) democracy and a weak economy put many obstacles to free speech. When newspapers cannot rely on subscriptions, and when advertising revenues are too low to cover the needs of editors and broadcasters, the media inevitably have to find a “master”, be it a political party or an economic group. This is partly an explanation how journalists become mercenaries and the media are transformed into weapons in the hands of political or other opponents.
No wonder then that such media are full of “information” which is far from meeting any criteria of free and objective journalism. The need to meet requirements in order to survive is often coupled with low professional standards and taking every “revelation” by the powerful persons of the day at their face value.
When journalists feel not free to report the truth or are reduced to carrying out orders, this may damage severely their sense of responsibility. At the same time, when the media are nothing but tools in the hands of interest groups, they lose their credibility and seize to perform their vital function of a society “watchdog”.
Level of Press Freedom
Besides said legal environment, some non-governmental organizations use more criteria to judge the level of press freedom around the world.
To judge the level of press freedom, international journalism advocacy (promotion) group Reporters Without Borders (RWB) considers;
The number of journalists murdered, expelled or harassed,
The existence of a state monopoly on TV and radio,
The existence of censorship and self-censorship in the media,
The overall independence of media,
The difficulties that foreign reporters may face.
Freedom House likewise studies the more general political and economic environments of each nation in order to determine whether relationships of dependence exist which limit in practice the level of press freedom that might be present in theory
Worldwide Press Freedom Index
Every year, the Reporters Without Borders (RWB) organization establishes a ranking of countries in terms of their freedom of the press. The list is based on responses to surveys sent to journalists that are members of partner organizations of the RWB, as well as related specialists such as researchers, jurists and human rights activists.
The survey asks questions about direct attacks on journalists and the media as well as other indirect sources of pressure against the free press, such as pressure on journalists by non-governmental groups.
RWB is careful to note that the index only deals with press freedom, and does not measure the quality of journalism.
In 2003, the countries where press was the most free were Finland, Iceland, the Netherlands and Norway. In 2004, apart from the above countries, Denmark, Ireland, Slovakia, and Switzerland were tied at the top of the list, followed by New Zealand and Latvia.
The countries with the least degree of press freedom were ranked with North Korea having the worst, followed by Burma, Turkmenistan, Eritrea, China (mainland only), Vietnam, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
The 2008 Annual Report voiced concern about the safety of journalists covering fighting in Sri Lanka, the Palestinian Territories, Somalia, Niger, Chad and especially Iraq, where it said “journalists continue to be buried almost every week.”
The report also protested against censorship of new media (mobile phones transmitting photos and film and video-sharing and social networking websites) and highlighted media repression in China in the run-up to the Olympic Games there this summer.
There are 15 countries in this year’s Reporters Without Borders list of “Internet Enemies” - Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.
There were only 13 in 2007. The two new additions to the traditional censors are both to be found in sub-Saharan Africa: Zimbabwe and Ethiopia.
“This is not at all surprising as these regimes regularly hound (worry) the traditional media,” Reporters Without Borders says in the introduction to its report. “Internet penetration is very slight, but nevertheless sufficient to give them a few nightmares. They follow the example of their seniors and draw on the full arsenal of online censorship methods including legislation, monitoring Internet cafés and controlling ISPs.”
There is also a supplementary list of 11 “countries under watch.” They are Bahrain, Eritrea, Gambia, Jordan, Libya, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Thailand, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Unlike the “enemies,” these countries do not imprison bloggers or censor the Internet massively. But they are greatly tempted (misleaded) and abuses are common. Many of them have laws that they could use to suppress the Internet if they wanted. And the judicial or political authorities often use anti-terrorism laws to identify and monitor government opponents and activists expressing themselves online.
According to Reporters Without Borders, more than a third of the world's people live in countries where there is no press freedom. Overwhelmingly, these people live in countries where there is no system of democracy or where there are serious deficiencies in the democratic process.
Freedom of the press is an extremely problematic concept for most non-democratic systems of government. In the modern age, strict control of access to information is critical to the existence of most non-democratic governments and their associated control systems and security apparatus.
To this end, most non-democratic societies employ state-run news organizations to promote the propaganda critical to maintaining an existing political power base and suppress (often very brutally, through the use of police, military, or intelligence agencies) any significant attempts by the media or individual journalists to challenge the approved "government line" on contentious issues.
In such countries, journalists operating on the environs of what is supposed to be acceptable will very often find themselves the subject of considerable pressure by agents of the state. This can range from simple threats to their professional careers (firing, professional blacklisting) to death threats, kidnapping, torture, and assassination.
Reporters Without Borders reports that, in 2003, 42 journalists lost their lives pursuing their profession and that, in the same year, at least 130 journalists were in prison as a result of their occupational activities. In 2005, 63 journalists and 5 media assistants were killed worldwide.
Weakness of the Media
Financial and political pressure, threats and other forms of harassment (repeated attacks) with regard to the media are still common place in some of the Central and Eastern European countries. The unstable economic situation in several former communist countries has indeed drastically reduced the possibilities of the population to buy newspapers and have made them heavily dependent upon television which is still government-controlled.
There is no doubt that immense progress has been achieved in Central and Eastern Europe since the fall of communism. However, it is most preoccupying that a few of these governments are still able to keep the media under their control and use all methods – threats, repression, violence, legal charges, imprisonment etc. –in order to silence independent voices.
Namely Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Albania are the European countries where it is extremely dangerous to be a journalist
Violation of press freedom is not something which only happen to new democracies. The European Court of Human Rights continues to sentence western governments with long-established democratic traditions for violations of Article 10. Amongst the most recent cases: Fressoz and Roire v. France, 21.01.1999, Bladet Tromsø and Stensaas v. Norway, 20.05.1999, New Verlqgs GmbH & CoKG v. Austria, 11/01/2000, Bergens Tidende and others v. Norway , 2 May 2000
We can also see that the media being used as propaganda tools, spreading words of hate, racism (discrimination) and xenophobia (dislike of foreigners) everywhere in Europe. But even where such violations do not exist, freedom of expression and information cannot be taken for granted, since new problems appear. For instance, pressure from mighty (powerful) financial conglomerates and media concentrations can be a serious problem in many western countries.
The media market is becoming more and more competitive which means more pressure on media to be present in conflict zones, a presence often provided by young and inexperienced freelance journalists willing to risk their lives in order to gain recognition.
The nature of conflicts has also changed. More and more of them are within states rather than between states. Participants in such separatist or terrorist wars do not always respect the rules of the game as laid down for example in the Geneva Conventions. This also poses a problem for international organizations wishing to help as it is difficult to address and deal with non-state actors.
1 Natural law
or the law of nature
(Latin lex naturalis
) is a law whose content is set by nature
, and that therefore has validity everywhere. The phrase natural law is sometimes opposed to the positive law
of a given political community, society
, or nation-state
, and can thus function as a standard by which to criticize that law. In natural law jurisprudence, on the other hand, the content of positive law cannot be known without some reference to the natural law (or something like it); natural law, used in this sense, can be evoked to criticize decisions about the law
, but less so to criticize the law itself. Natural law can be used synonymously with natural justice
or natural right (Latin ius naturale
), although most contemporary political and legal theorists separate the two.
Natural law theories have exercised a profound influence on the development of English common law[, and have featured greatly in the philosophies of Thomas Aquinas, Francisco Suárez, Thomas Hobbes, Hugo Grotius, Samuel von Pufendorf, and John Locke. Because of the intersection between natural law and natural rights, it has been cited as a component (factor) in United States Declaration of Independence.
2 Social contact is the agreement between a state and its people regarding the rights and duties that each should have to the other.