Reading the news is often the first thing that people do in the morning. Whether its a newspaper or online or a quick recap on T.V., everyone consumes news. However, is all that we read free from bias or freely reported? Does it change from paper to paper? Do citizens in all countries get to read the news at all? Today, on Freedom of the Press Day, let’s look at some of these questions.
What is Freedom of the Press? The United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “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”. This statement basically says that no government can try to stop reporters from doing their job or expressing their opinions. It is given the same importance as Freedom of Speech. Many countries have this written into their Constitution as it is a very important right. Sweden was the first country in the world to adopt this freedom in 1766.
Why is it important? We all rely on the press to hold the government responsible for their actions by reporting on them and giving different points of view. So a journalist should be able to write about a corruption scandal and should not have to be afraid of any consequences. When people are allowed to have differing opinions and comments, then democracy is really working. That is why the Freedom of the Press should be fiercely protected.
Like all rights, there are responsibilities. Newspapers and journalists can be sued for libel or defamation (when you report something as a fact against someone that is not true). If it is an opinion, it can not be libel – e.g. if you say, “I think Mr X is a horrible person” it is not libel because it is your opinion. If you say, “Mr X is a horrible person because he slaps children”, that can be libel because you will have to prove that to be a fact.
There is also some information that the government distinguishes as ‘classified’ or ‘against national interest’ to be published. While this is often right, the government can sometimes use this to suppress things that they don’t want the want to keep away from public knowledge. To counter that, many countries have new Right to Information Acts that try to define what exactly is in ‘national interest’.
So is there Freedom of Press all over the world? Unfortunately, no. Many countries have a ban on newspapers and the internet to limit the access that the people have to information. They want complete control over what their citizens read and listen to. Reporters without Borders tracks press freedom in countries by counting how many journalists are kidnapped, harassed or even killed while doing their jobs. They also look at ‘self-censorship’ – which means that people are scared to express their views on say a site like Facebook because others who have, may have been unnecessarily harassed or imprisoned. Though they are eventually released, it creates an atmosphere of fear.
Another organisation, The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), has an annual list of all journalist arrested or killed because of their work. In 2017, 262 journalists were in prison – half of which were in Turkey, China and Egypt.
You will find more infographics at Statista
So what about India? The press in India is free, and there are examples of the rights being upheld in court when they have been under threat. Like in the case of Union of India v/s Association for Democratic Reforms, the Supreme Court ruled that “One-sided information, disinformation, misinformation and non-information…..makes democracy a farce. Freedom of speech and expression includes right to impart and receive information which includes freedom to hold opinions”.
However, in 2019, India ranks 140 of 178 on the World Press Freedom Index. Not great. Cases such as the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh, an outspoken journalist, highlight this point. Media watchdog, The Hoot’s ‘India Freedom Report – Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression’ in 2017, has these statistics:
- 11 journalists killed
- 46 attacks of journalists
- 13 cases of arrests and police cases against journalists, all of whom were let after interrogation.
The report also stated cases of censorship where the media was barred from covering certain events.
In India, as in other countries, there is also an issue with who owns the media. E.g. if Company A owns the news outlet, and there is some bad news to report about it, it is unlikely that that story will get covered in that particular paper. So corporates can be just as manipulative in curbing Freedom of Press as the government.
So in today’s world, you have to question what you read and read widely. The quote below sums up why we need to read widely and the need for the Freedom of the Press,
“I remember asking my father, ‘Why do we need four newspapers?’ He said to me, ‘Unless you read different points of view, your mind will eventually close, and you’ll become a prisoner to a certain point of view that you’ll never question.'”
Mohamed El-Erian: CEO and co-chief investment officer, Pimco
Written by: Pereena Lamba. Pereena is a freelance writer, editor and creative consultant. She is also co-author of Totally Mumbai.