HOW SHOULD WE JUDGE THE VALUE OF PRESS FREEDOM?
The 20th century, especially before the Second World War, press freedom was an uncommon thing, despite its protection in democratic countries such as the United States. Press freedom was constrained for the most part because of state interference in the dissemination of information. There were no checks and balances when it came to sexism, racism, and political malpractices such as the spread of propaganda. Press freedom was limited to what was sanctioned by the establishment. The rise of totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during this period is evidence of the problems wrought on society by the proliferation of one-sided ideas about political movements and their leaders. Figures such as Hitler and Stalin were a fictitious creation by the propaganda machine in their respective sociopolitical movements to constrain the ability of the citizens to make informed decisions about elections.
Also, there were misleading social commentaries on issues such as gender and race, thereby ensuring that racial, gender, and other stereotypes persisted regardless of mounting evidence that demonstrated their invalidity. However, attributing the improvements in the sociopolitical landscape after the U.S.’s victory in the war through subsequent social and political movements is perhaps too bold a claim to make. There are indications that improvements in press freedom and access to information contributed significantly to the improvements, but these occurred within the democratic framework of the U.S. and its stewardship of the international community towards democracy. The paper argues that the concept of press freedom only has validity within a democratic framework and a particular sociopolitical context.
The United States Constitution enshrines press freedom under the First Amendment. Press freedom refers to the ability of a free and independent press to disseminate truth information or facts objectively about the countries, governments, and social contexts within which people live. The most important elements of the definition are objectivity and truth. People deserve to have the facts objectively presented to them so that they can make decisions concerning their sociopolitical contexts (Miller 2015). However, the ability to make informed decisions based on facts is dependent on the analytical abilities of the populace, which is a matter of education. Considering the sociopolitical improvements made so far since the Second World War, the global populace has acquired information and put it into practice without the necessity for totalitarian authority to drive transformative sociopolitical movements. This suggests that an informed public can make decisions that are conducive to the welfare of the collective, which was something the status quo or society’s elite rejected before the war. However, there are instances when the public makes decisions that are contrary to the best interests of the collective, such as the recent election of Donald Trump to the White House.
Political and social commentators, especially of the progressive democratic political inclination, have cited the potential political and social threat posed by a Trump win. His win over Hillary Clinton was relatively unexpected because of the contention that the U.S.’s espousal of democratic values would lead to an automatic rejection of Trump’s demagoguery. Since he won, commentators in the media have struggled to understand the social dynamics in the country that created the sociopolitical substructure that propelled Trump into office. They fear a reversal of the gains made in combating gender and racial discrimination and promoting democratic values within and outside the U.S. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (2016), Trump’s presidency is also a threat to press freedom. Therefore, the fact that the electorate decided to elect Trump to the presidency is a conundrum based on the arguments advanced so far. In a free and fair election in which the media has the press freedom to report truthful facts, the electorate should make a choice that advances the interests of the collective and protects the gains made so far.
Kalenborn and Lessman (2013) provide research into the link between democracy and press freedom in reducing or limiting political corruption, such as demagoguery and abuse of human rights through economic or physical suppression. The researchers report that there is a voter-legislator relationship that determines the outcomes of a democratic process, which is mediated by the level of press freedom. The voters cannot influence the decisions of the legislators directly, but through the voting process, they can change legislators, principally changing the associated legislations as well (Kalenborn & Lessman 2013; Ahrend 2000; Brunetti 2003). According to The Atlantic Philanthropies (2010), in developing democracies such as South Africa, press freedom plays a crucial role in social justice, reducing corruption and engendering the respect for legislation meant to protect people.
However, the problem of the majority vote is still a problem since the majority might not express what is truthful or conducive to the collective’s welfare, such as South Africa’s election of Thabo Mbeki, an Aids denier. Despite a democratic framework with press freedom, there are instances such as the Gulf and the Iraq war in which journalists acted as mouthpieces for the government, thereby leading to gross violations of human rights sanctioned by the electorate. Miller (2015) reports that during Bush’s term as president, he passed the pro-secrecy legislations that protected revelation of presidential records, thereby limiting the capacity of a journalist to acquire and disseminate information about the president’s activity while in office (Miller 2015). Such events raise questions about what press freedom refers to within a democratic setting. The state and the independent press have always sought to acquire a monopoly over what press freedom means, whether and when limits should be imposed to protect the public from misleading information. This tug of war has reached fever point in the current sociopolitical landscape.
President Obama who has highly favorable poll ratings among the public claimed to be a proponent of press freedom during a CBS News interview. The president noted that in some countries, there was active suppression of the free press, thereby undermining the ability of the people to protect their rights and make informed decisions based on truthful facts. However, Miller (2015) reports that Obama’s administration has itself sought to limit press freedom when the facts presented by journalists could portray a damaging picture of the government. The Obama administration limited access to public documents, which is a right guaranteed under the Freedom of Information Act. The government considers the restricted information as sensitive information that could harm the collective if released (Miller 2015).
However, should the government have the right to decide which information is accessible to the public through the press and which is not? In principle, democracy demands that the public should have access to such information when there is no immediate danger if the government releases the information. Leakers and whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden have demonstrated governments can cover up covert projects such as unconstitutional surveillance and conceal such projects through withholding information from the public. Comparing press freedom in Russia to the U.S. might provide insights on whether press freedom should at least be selectively constrained for the collective good.
During the 1990s, Russia started sliding back to a totalitarian political leaning, especially when Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, made it into the Kremlin. Podrabinek (2014) points out that since Russia could not go against public opinion in a direct manner, it sought to gag the press and replace truthful reporting of facts with propaganda. This technique is one characteristic of most totalitarian regimes since control of information guarantees the control of the electorate. In such a political context, the ability of the electorate to remove legislators from political positions is severely limited. Moreover, the information they receive from such regimes is biased in which case they may believe it yet it is incorrect. Kalenborn and Lessman’s (2013) analysis of democracy and press freedom supports the contention that all totalitarian regimes must gag the press to ensure continued existence. Such regimes are aware that allowing the press to be free can compromise their ideologies. Moreover, the truths and wrongs of their activities are likely to be exposed.
Within the digital information age, there is little evidence to suggest that individuals who need information cannot access it through independent means. There is more information proliferation and access now than at any time in history, which begs the question whether the democracy-press freedom link clearly explains the role of press freedom. In Russia, a demagogue leader deliberately manipulates information to pander to the masses or influence legislation and policies while the opposite is seemingly the case in the U.S. There should be a difference in outcomes in political decisions between the two countries, which was not apparent in the previously concluded U.S. elections. Kalenborn and Lessman’s (2013) and other researchers cited strongly suggest that the electorate should vote to change the legislature for their best interests provided there is press freedom.
Trump’s victory is perceivably against the U.S. best interests, which is a contention held by most sociopolitical commentators. His connection with Russia has received widespread attention. Regarding media freedom, Trump’s attitude is uncannily similar to Putin’s, which should have incited the electorate to vote against him by all expectations of a state with a functioning democratic system and highly free press. Evidence of Trump’s assault on press freedom comes from his statements about Russia’s suppression of the press.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (2016), when a journalist asked Trump about his visible Putin admiration, he stated, “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country” (Committee to Protect Journalists 2016; Eichenwald 2016). This response suggests that Trump favored Putin’s approach to an effective political system than is currently practiced in the U.S. President Obama’s administration, although to a lesser extent, also expressed reservations about ‘leaking’ or releasing some public documents despite having laws guaranteeing such release because it would be against public interest (Miller 2015). The research shows that there are limits on press freedom even in the most democratic country. These limits, apparently supposed to protect the public from sensitive information, are blurry and subject to contextual factors. The context, rather than the principals espoused by a democracy, is the most important element of defining what press freedom is or is not.
There is an increasing backlash against the press from state and non-state elements in the current context, especially in established democracies. The U.S. mainstream media’s inability to foresee a Trump win is evidence that the press has increasingly disconnected from its audience because of narrowly defined agendas in women’s rights and foreign policy. Rather than providing facts for analysis to the public to inform their decision-making, the press has increasingly sought to define public agenda, thereby limiting their objectivity in reporting (Karlekar 2010; Miller 2016). This might explain why despite Trump’s assault on media freedom, the electorate elected him to the office. The collective therefore did not act against their best interests, which means that the link between democracy and press freedom is accurately presented in the research as long as contextual factors are considered. There are no indications that the American electorate preferred a Putin-like presidency or a reversal of the social gains enabled by an increasingly free press since the 1940s.
The research finds that the difficulty in defining press freedom, its limits and its uses, comes from the influence of contextual factors on information dissemination to the public. Currently, press freedom has a deleterious effect on the public because of the agenda-setting and subjective bias that comes with it. Media houses have resorted to political affiliations, such as the Republican-leaning Fox News and the Democrat-leaning liberal news media. Within such a context, the backlash against free press is an inevitable consequence. Trump’s victory in the U.S. is a clear signal that the electorate is unhappy with media reporting on sociopolitical issues that affect them. The unprecedented win demonstrates the disconnect between the press and the electorate it is supposed to serve. The inevitable consequence is a distrust of the media and usurping of political power by demagogues that take advantage of a failed news-reporting context to undermine democracy. Press freedom is meaningful only within a democracy emanates from democratic political structures.
Ahrend, R 2000, Press freedom, human capital and corruption, DELTA, Paris.
Brunetti, A 2003, A Free Press is Bad News for Corruption. Available
From: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0047272701001864 [12 December 2016]
Eichenwald, K 2016, Why Vladimir Putin’s Russia Is Backing Donald Trump. Available
From: http://europe.newsweek.com/donald-trump-vladimir-putin-russia-hillary-clinton-united-states-europe-516895?rm=eu [12 December 2016]
Committee to Protect Journalists 2016, CPJ chairman says Trump is threat to press freedom.
Available From: https://cpj.org/2016/10/cpj-chairman-says-trump-is-threat-to-press-freedom.php [12 December 2016]
Kalenborn, C., and Lessmann, C 2013, ‘The impact of democracy and press freedom on
corruption: Conditionality matters,’ Journal of Policy Modeling, vol. 35 no. 6, pp.857-886.
Karlekar, K.D 2011, Press Freedom in 2010: Signs of change amid repression. Available From:
http://mediajogfigyelo.hu/uploads/files/0_Freedom_House_2011_OverviewEssay.pdf [12 December 2016].
Miller, J 2015, Obama: Press freedom “vital” to democracy. Available From:
http://www.cbsnews.com/news/obama-press-freedom-vital-to-democracy/ [12 December 2016].
Miller, B 2016, Backlash Against Trump Continues In The Press and On the Streets. Available
From: http://sopusa.net/backlash-trump-continues-press-streets/ [12 December 2016].
Podrabinek, A 2014, Totalitarianism and Freedom of Speech. Available From:
http://imrussia.org/en/society/763-totalitarianism-and-freedom-of-speech [12 December 2016].
The Atlantic Philanthropies 2014, Press freedom is a pillar of democracy. Available From:
http://www.atlanticphilanthropies.org/news/press-freedom-pillar-democracy-mzilikazi-wa-afrika [12 December 2016].