Guarding freedom of the press


Banter about the notion of guarding the freedom of the press clutters the airwaves around the globe, even in countries generally considered to lack a free press. Press freedom is considered to be a noble and worthy cause. There are few public figures in the West who challenge this notion openly - even if at times their rhetoric imageand deeds do not match.

Before embarking upon the practical aspects of guarding a free press, there are a number of questions to consider. First, and perhaps the foremost question, is to define freedom. Should there be bounds within which freedom must operate? Or, should it be limitless? What does this freedom look like?

Next, consider the consequences of guarding the freedom of the press. A number of implications derive from the idea of guardianship. Why are we guarding the freedom of the press? For what purpose? And what are the threats against which we guard it? These are a few of the many questions to proffer. The answers will indeed impact the approach taken to protecting freedom of the press.

There are many organisations and individuals around the world who are dedicated to upholding the freedom of the press around the world. A number of them work in trying circumstances. I have been a visitor over the years to the Russian Union of Journalists headquarters in Moscow. I even defended my doctoral thesis there in August 2004. The staff in Moscow work under tremendous strain and yet retain their commitment to their ideals. In 2007, they were threatened with eviction from their premises, but they have stubbornly managed to stay there.

What is this precious ideal for which these people and many others so stubbornly struggle? Freedom is one of those words that means different things to different people. It is a matter of perspective and where you are standing at the time you consider the idea. UNESCO regards and characterises freedom of the press as a basic human right. The United Nations agency says it actively works toward press freedom. But it never defines what it is, exactly.

Resorting to the internet resource Wikipedia, a description of the physical process: “...consists of constitutional or statutory protections pertaining to the media and published materials”.

Press freedom could be defined as possessing the ability and opportunity to say what you want without restriction. But this requires a fine balance between freedoms and responsibilities. This notion, however, does seem to imply the undesirable element of some measure of censorship by the press.

Absolute freedom, where anything can be published, is an uncommon occurrence. On those few occasions when it has happened, this privilegeimage
has been quickly revoked. Take for example the case of the Kingdom of Denmark and Norway in 1770. Old censorship laws were abolished, but reintroduced within one year to stem the rapid rise of yellow journalism. This causes a dilemma and debate on the issue of how much freedom governments should give and its effects. Freedom of the press is certainly conducive to discussing constructively the issues of the day. One should not confuse pluralism in the press and equate it with freedom of the press.

There are numerous threats to the freedom of the press. The situation for journalists seems to deteriorate each year. One needs look no further than the growing death toll among journalists around the world, or to softer means of censoring or otherwise inhibiting the work of the mass media. These come from a number of different sources. During periods of crisis or tension, though, even the more highly-ranked (in terms of media freedom) countries can be tempted to crack down on the press in the name of ‘noble’ causes, such as national security.
Sweden was arguably the first country to protect the press with the introduction of the Press Act in 1766. Yet, even with this long history of freedom of the press there are occasions when politics and freedom of the press collide. This was demonstrated clearly during the Muhammad Cartoons controversy. The then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Laila Freivald resigned after the revelation she interfered with the freedom of the press.

One of the underlying and fundamental flaws in the whole process of definition, in the legal sense of the word, is that it is for the most part done by governments. Sometimes this is done with the input of interested parties. And as real life often demonstrates, it is the government which is a major source of threat. The supposed protector and guardian of this ‘sacred’ right can therefore also be the source of its peril. Politics is known as the art of compromise.

When protection of press freedom is shifted to the level of international institutions, things take an even more difficult turn. The process, especially on sensitive topics requiring consensus (press freedom being just one such topic) and the end result - no matter how well intentioned originally - is borne of a compromise between interests that are at times conflicting.

Still, these important questions and processes of compromise should not put anyone off trying to protect press freedom.

Flickr images from users Bright Tal (Political) and Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton