Freedom of the press through theory and practice
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Written By: Laza Florina
Freedom of the press is the right to issue opinions and present facts through various methods such as printed materials, televisions or online media without censorship or interference from outside entities. This gives journalists the exclusive right to exercise control over choosing what to publish or print and, also, refuse to do so if they see it appropriate. However, this does not mean press freedom has complete prevalence over other conflicting interests, being subject to restrictions through constitutional or other legal provisions for reasons of sovereignty or independence, data protection, right to privacy, reputation, criminal justice, etc.
Freedom of press protects printed publications, televisions, online editions of traditional media, internet journalistic publications, but does not protect non-professional journalistic activities, such as blogs, social media, etc.; in any case, those freelance activities are protected by freedom of expression and information.
In reality, freedom of expression joined by freedom of information and freedom of the press are the fundamental pillars of a true democracy. They are all connected through an invisible thread and they all depend on each other to produce valuable judgments over new events, changes, and social trends because only a collective of free opinions can lead to further social and political development. Journalists are obliged by work ethics and legal provisions to provide impartial and accurate information to its audience no matter the change in political power, social or economic interests.
The United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the milestone document in the history of human rights which applies directly to all state parties emphasizes in article 19 the following: “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”.
Also, the pluralism of press should be a requirement for any country of the world and, also, guaranteed by governments and press providers. No one should interfere in anyone’s rightful liberty to exercise its freedoms freely. Press pluralism leads to a landscape of diversity in political, social and economic views, thus creating the possibility of forming public opinion and allowing people to make informed choices regarding their political decisions.
Unfortunately, many people still live in countries where there is no system of democracy or any efficient democratic process, and for those countries, press freedom has become an unreachable fantasy. In a dictatorship, media has no power or right to express itself freely and it`s unfortunate to live in a world still filled with abuses and violations over fundamental rights even to this day in the 21st Century.
A non-governmental organization called Reporters Without Borders releases a report every year, called World Press Freedom Index, regarding different levels of press freedom on the globe. In 2017, among the countries with least degree of press freedom were North Korea, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Syria, China, Vietnam, and Sudan. And the countries were press was the freest were Finland, Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Switzerland, Sweden, Ireland, and Jamaica.
North Korea is ranked as having the smallest level of freedom and editorial independence in 2017, mostly because of Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian regime which continues to keep its citizens in a state of ignorance and fear of being sent to the concentration camps for listening to foreign press sources which are prohibited by law.
Eritrea occupies the penultimate place as a result of being a dictatorship state controlled by President Issayas Afeworki’s political interests and plans. At least 11 journalists are detained without being charged for the lack of obedience. He stated in an interview in 2014 that “those who think there will be a democracy in this country can think so in another world”.
Turkmenistan, a unitary presidential republic under a highly authoritarian state, remains one of the world’s most repressive countries. The country is subject to draconian restrictions on most of the fundamental liberties and rights of its citizens. It was reported that several journalists have been arrested, tortured, or physically attacked in recent years and the authorities are continuing a campaign of removing satellite dishes, depriving the population of one of the remaining ways to access uncontrolled news coverage.
Syria had never known the concept of freedom of the press and with the country’s current situation; journalists are caught between the strict regime of the country and the other armed opposition groups such as the Jihadi fighters and the Kurds. In the last decades, the country’s press has been characterized by its constant intimidations, arrests, abductions, and murders of media representatives.
China was named the world’s leading prison for citizen journalists, having the largest recorded number of incarcerated journalists and bloggers in the world including well-known apprised journalists and RSF Press Freedom laureates. The country has a long road to come in order to establish the right environment for media pluralism and freedom of expression considering the extreme censorship in China.
Within the European Union borders, press freedom is a fundamental right established both in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights through Article 11 subclause 2: ”The freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected” and, also, in the European Convention on Human Rights in Article 10 through a resembling provision.
In Europe, Ukraine is one of the most dangerous countries to work as a reporter. This profession is seen as a brave activity far away from being a simple work job. As a matter of fact, since the independence of the country more than 20 journalists have been killed. One of the most notable cases is the one of the abduction and murder of Georgiy Gongadze, founder of a popular Internet newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda which means the ”truth of Ukraine”, in 2000. His dead body was found two months later in a forest bearing a horrifying appearance because his body was decapitated and doused in dioxin while the victim was still alive. Two years ago at the 15th anniversary of his death, the Ukrainian people created a beautiful display of candles and placards at the Independence Square in Kiev in the memory of a devoted and true-hearted journalist, one that proved how a strong and independent man can make a difference even after his death.
India, the world’s largest democracy, while not mentioning the word ”press” in its Constitution, talks about the “freedom of expression and the freedom of speech” in Article 19 a): ”All citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression”. However, this right is subject to restrictions such as sovereignty and independence of the state; the security of the state; friendly relations with foreign countries, public order; preserving morality; in relation to contempt; court; defamation, or incitement to an offense.
It was reported that prominent political figures and business conglomerates are making underhanded investments in news media in order to gain more influence and popularity. Actually, paid news has become a widespread phenomenon and a vital weapon in political games. When reportages are mostly made to fit the interests of politicians and corporate entities, the citizens are the ones who suffer because they lose their right to be informed correctly and make fair choices.
In many democracies, politicians and businessman are prohibited to hold news media broadcasting and publishing rights, but unfortunately, this is not the case for the Indian press. Examples on this matter start with India’s biggest TV network, CNN-IBN who’s directly controlled by one of the richest men of the world, Mukesh Ambani, the chairman of Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) a 100 billion dollars asset. Also, Ambien’s brother owns Reliance Big Broadcasting and has stakes in numerous publications and TV channels. Other televisions such as NDTV and India Today have corporate investments which are significantly influenced by political preferences and last but not least News 24 is owned by Anurradha Prasad, the wife of the opposition Congress Party leader Rajeev Shukla.
Journalists are even free to start their own political careers while using their statute as a press representative to express their support for the political party that they desire and there are no regulations to prevent others from using the press as a political tool in controlling public’s opinion. Also, there is no mechanism to protect the journalists if they attempt to expose corruption. Moreover, they are openly prosecuted and intimidated to reflect other political or financial aspirations.
When had the press become a platform for different influent political figures to achieve their political agenda? Is this freedom slowly deteriorating for the sake of ruling parties, business tycoons, and other organizations’ interests? Now there are more televisions, newspapers and online news publications, but not as many voices willing to sacrifice and speak out about the unfairness and the injustices of the system.
Printed press, television, and radio, online news publications are all contributing equally to protect the democratic values of a society. Journalists may not realize it, but with each editorial, they are writing history which is why they have to present the facts from the most objective point of view. Also, no interference should be allowed from outside entities. All these precautions are necessary because the things that leaders say or do no matter right or wrong, they influence people to act as they are told. They have a greater responsibility, but most of them take this responsibility for granted and no matter the consequences, they use their influence in order to hold the power tighter, tighter than any other world leader did before them… because “who controls the past controls the future” and “who controls the present controls the past” as it was stated in the dystopian political book “1984” by George Orwell.