Throughout the world, journalists and commentators have an important responsibility to reliably inform the general public of the latest events, stories, and opinions. While doing so, they also have the added responsibility of protecting their sources.
Over the course of history, governments and prominent individuals or organizations have often tried to control and influence the press, in order to manipulate public opinion. Misinformation, censorship, bribery, and harassment can all be used for this purpose. Evidently, the freedom of the press is a vital democratic principle, given that the public will often vote according to the information received through the press.
Benefits of free press
A free press facilitates the individual’s capacity to formulate their own opinions, by drawing from all available sources. Alexis de Tocqueville stated that, ‘The sovereignty of the people and the liberty of the press may therefore be looked upon as correlative institutions; just as the censorship of the press and universal suffrage are two things which are irreconcilably opposed.’
Having a free press is of particular importance around the time of an election, since people need extensive and reliable information regarding the political parties and their suggested policies.
It is also of extreme importance to have press freedom whenever issues of government mismanagement or misconduct arise. Governments must be held accountable for their actions and this can only be possible when people are free to disseminate their opinions.
Some countries have a very strong record regarding non-interference with their press. Sweden, Norway and Finland are among the highest ranking countries in terms of press freedom. This enables them to be among the lowest countries in the rankings for corruption, and contributes to the overall freedom in society.
Free press contributes to more open debate on matters of responsibility and public health. People should be able to critically review products and services, which in turn helps to develop a competitive market, through informed choices.
Consequences of interfering with the press
Certain justifiable limitations exist regarding freedom of the press. In general, journalists cannot have any greater right than any other person, to harass or use invasive tactics, which would infringe on individual rights to privacy. Phone tapping and installation of recording devices cannot be tolerated. Such behavior has occurred in many instances in the past, where newspapers resorted to illegal tactics for gathering information to tarnish reputations, and had to pay damages when sued for libel as a result.
Lack of press freedom can lead to a paranoid and ill informed society, dominated by propaganda, where journalists must fear for their lives while carrying out their profession. Such conditions are not conducive to democracy or indeed liberty. Dominance will be exerted by those in power in the government and its establishment.
Examples of countries with major barriers to press freedom include China, Turkmenistan, Eritrea, and North Korea. Individuals in these countries have little or no access to any information, other than that approved by their government.
Countries with limited press freedom also rank unfavorably on the corruption scale. Journalists in such jurisdictions will face prosecution, or even summary execution, for expressing opinions that conflict with the government narrative.
Why having a free press matters to SFL
At Students for Liberty, we believe that a free press is a crucial element and the cornerstone of any free society. Those who seek to inform the public should not be persecuted for disseminating information or opinions, provided that they are not infringing upon the rights of others.