Press freedom around the world has increasingly come under attack over the last decade and a half. In 2016, the proportion of the global population that enjoys a free press fell to its lowest level in 13 years, and only 13 percent of the world’s population now live in countries with a press that earns the Freedom House status ‘Free’. The 2018 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) paints an equally worrying picture: hostility towards journalists is increasing across the globe, even in democracies in Europe and the US that have traditionally respected press freedom most. In fact, as a Freedom House special report highlights, until a few years ago pressure on the media did not affect the established democracies of North America and Europe in any significant way. Now, however, an increasing number of politicians blatantly undermine press freedom by denouncing journalists and the media, especially when they report critically. By attacking independent journalism, these politicians undermine a fundamental pillar of democracy and open societies.
Despite the ongoing negative trends that increasingly threaten the work of journalists and media personnel, press freedom has received only limited attention in the context of international human rights. The benefits of a free press for economic and political development have been documented (Sen 1999, Norris 2008, Guseva et al. 2008). But coverage of press freedom as a human right per se is largely absent from the academic literature. In my book Press Freedom as an International Human Right, I fill this gap by examining why press freedom has not become part of the established international human rights discourse, despite its centrality to democratic theory. This article summarizes the main arguments of the book and provides an explanation for why press freedom has been neglected in the international human rights debate.
Press Freedom vs. Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Information
At first glance, it might strike readers as an odd observation that press freedom has not received a lot of attention in the context of human rights, considering that NGOs like Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists compile periodic reports on press freedom violations across the globe. Recent progress has also been made at the UN on the issue of safety of journalists and there is a continuous debate on topics relating to the Internet and other new information technologies in the broader context of human rights. These measures are important, but they cannot be equated with addressing press freedom as a human right. Press freedom is not the same as freedom of information. Neither is press freedom the same as freedom of expression. These concepts and rights overlap, but they quite substantially differ on the fact that protecting a free press also protects a vital institution in a democratic society.
The key to understanding press freedom in its own right is the fact that it makes information available to the masses. In an age of expanding government bureaucracies and capabilities, and changing social fabrics, the press holds a bigger responsibility for ensuring political oversight than ever. Critics may point out that the rise of the Internet is reversing this trend, but events in the Arab world tell a different story. To reach and mobilize the masses, traditional news outlets are still indispensable. The Arab Spring originated with a few hundred activists that organized protest movements through new and social media, but only after Al Jazeera and other traditional media outlets started reporting about the protests, did the movement scale upwards to mobilize millions (Alterman 2011).
The fact that people can express themselves through whichever media they like does not guarantee a political oversight mechanism. But the role of the press as a political institution reaches farther than simply providing a check on those in power. Given the fact that the people possess the absolute sovereignty in a democracy, and that elected officials are representatives of the public will, their government needs a way of staying in touch with the wants and needs of the citizenry. Simply granting free expression to every citizen does not fulfil this important function.
Furthermore, for the democratic process to work, the public needs to be informed not only about its government’s conducts and policies, but also about important issues and debates. The press aides the democratic dialogue in this context, but it does more than simply provide information. If its only purpose were to make relevant information accessible to the people, the press could be easily replaced by new technology. These days, governments have ways of making information public directly through their websites or social media channels. But the availability of information does not automatically increase the number of informed citizens.
Although the lines between individual speech and journalism is becoming increasingly blurry as a result of the digital revolution, having a press that provides an editorial function and adheres to professional standards like objectivity, accuracy and confidentiality, is vital. Reaching a mass audience is critical for having a political impact, but explaining information accurately and impartially so that the public can make sense of it, is just as important.
Recent developments in the U.S. and other democratic countries have also highlighted the importance of verifying and filtering the vast amount of information people are exposed to on a regular basis in the digital age. Disinformation, which aims to deliberately mislead the audience, can spread easily online through social networks, and can even influence electoral outcomes, as the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit vote in the UK suggest. But disinformation is not just a domestic problem. It has also become a tool for authoritarian regimes to spread their counternorms internationally.
In order to fight the onslaught of disinformation, it is crucial to have trained reporters and reputable journalistic outlets that can help legitimize information. They have the knowledge and tools to sift through much of the material that is disseminated by home-grown or international authoritarian disinformation machines and can thus give the public a better idea of what information and sources can be trusted. The press thus plays an important role not just in informing the public and the government, but also by putting this information into context and verifying it. Granting the right to freedom of expression does not automatically safeguard this necessary democratic function. It is therefore also important to distinguish between the right to freedom of information and the right to a free press.
The role of the press in democratic societies is varied, as discussed in more detail in my book. It functions as a political institution that checks for abuses of power; it also provides information and context that contributes to the democratic dialogue between citizens and their representatives; and it plays an important role in fostering social cohesion. However, the right of the individual to be able to say and write whatever he or she wants does not protect from tyranny, corruption or incompetence by itself. Only if there is a press able to report without restrictions to the public at large can political oversight by the people truly be guaranteed.
The importance of the press therefore stems from a combination of two things: the press holds power due to its mass audience and as a result carries out indispensable social and political functions. Freedom of expression is not necessarily a thorn in the side of governments that aim to pursue their interests, but press freedom is. Even in advanced democracies government interests and promoting a free press are at odds, since the very goal of press freedom is to keep the government in check (Blasi 1977: 538-40).
Explaining the Neglected Status of Press Freedom in the International Human Rights Debate
Nevertheless, the political aspect of press freedom is rarely taken into consideration in the context of human rights in the international discourse. Unlike the French revolutionaries and the American Founding Fathers of the 18th century, the creators of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) did not include an explicit provision for freedom of the press. As article 19 UDHR provides, “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.” Some might argue that the phrasing does not matter, that in principle Article 19 preserves the same right as the First Amendment to the US Constitution: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”. But given the lack of focus on press freedom at the international level, the phrasing is instructive. One explicitly stresses freedom of the press – as a group, an institution. The other guarantees the individual right to expression through all media. In the latter, the media are a mere tool to secure the right to freedom of expression, rather than an entity worthy of protection itself.
Consequently, it is not surprising that the UN framework does not treat press freedom as an end in itself. Instead, the media are treated as a means to an end, and that end comes in different variations: to protect the right to information; to guarantee freedom of expression; to foster understanding and friendly cooperation among peoples and states; to publicize and mitigate humanitarian disasters; or to promote human and economic development. In other words, the media, or press freedom, are treated as a channel to secure other human rights. They are not treated as an institution that requires its own protection. This reality of the UN discourse is reflected in the academic literature on human rights.
Indeed, as I lay out in my book, press freedom is practically absent in the discussion of human rights. Older texts on human rights do not feature much discussion on press freedom, free press or the media. In the cases that they do, it is in the context of the right to free speech and mostly perfunctory. Newer texts acknowledge the importance of the media and particularly the Internet, but do not address press freedom in depth, if at all. The general emphasis is on taking the power of the press for granted in the context of other human rights on the one hand, and on highlighting the drawbacks of the media and how they do not adequately report on human rights abuses on the other. However, this approach is undermining the essential political and societal role of the press.
Why, critics might ask, does it matter that press freedom is not addressed sufficiently in human rights works and at the UN? It matters because by ignoring or reducing press freedom to debates about the influence of the Internet, or what the media can do about development, we are conflating it with other rights and consequently miss the point of press freedom altogether: a free press is central to the relationship between political authorities and the people. Furthermore, the protection of a free press should not be targeted at states that are known human rights violators, but at all states. All governments are interested in sustaining their power, and the so-called Fourth Estate has the potential to undermine this power. Indeed, the institution of a free press is one of the greatest safeguards the public has against government abuses, and for ensuring that they receive the information they need in order to make government representatives accountable to them. This is the basis of democracy.
In short, promoting a free press as a right in itself undermines government interests because the press is a powerful force in the political process if it is allowed to function freely. It is also an influential economic actor. As a result, states – democratic and non-democratic – tend not to promote press freedom in the context of international human rights. Treating press freedom as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself in the international framework of human rights protects the interests of political authorities. This explains the current state of the press freedom debate at the international level, and it explains why the way we think about the place of press freedom in the human rights framework requires a reinterpretation.
It will not be an easy task, but it is important that the human rights community make the defence and promotion of press freedom a more central theme. It is unlikely that states can be counted on to become serious about protecting the free press by themselves. This suggests that non-governmental actors need to take a more prominent role in the promotion of press freedom. Bottom-up social movements and some well-known organizations are already active in the field, but the prominent, multi-issue human rights organizations should also dedicate more resources to press freedom in order to elevate the topic to more than an annual talking point on World Press Freedom Day at the UN. They should become more vocal about the important functions the free press fulfils for democratic politics and society. Because NGOs are often struggling with resources, independent media companies could support the important work of NGOs on the issue of press freedom by becoming donors for the cause. This might of course be difficult because the news media have their own funding problems. Efforts to solve the economic crisis of the news media should consequently be a priority. Without it, it will be difficult to bolster independent journalism and a pluralist media landscape.
It is also vital that those promoting press freedom make the public aware of the fact that a free press works in their interest. Media literacy classes and citizen education about the importance of a free press as a political institution might be useful in this context. The problem with press freedom in the West is largely a problem of public support. If the public does not want or cherish a free press, it is unlikely that there will be one.
Some might say that there are already too many rights that go unenforced, and that there is no need to add yet another one, particularly since Article 19 seems to imply freedom of the press from the more general right to freedom of expression. However, press freedom is not a new right. As discussed in depth in my book, press freedom was originally part of drafts for Article 19 UDHR, but was taken out for political reasons. Precisely for this reason, namely the political importance of press freedom, it is critical not to simply imply a right to press freedom, but discuss its merits as a key civil and political right. What is more, the evidence of more than a decade of declining press freedom all around the world with a drastic deterioration over the last few years even in established democratic societies, shows that implying press freedom has not translated well into practice. Press freedom thus deserves more attention in the human rights debate, particularly at a time when it is under unprecedented attack globally.
Meet the author
Wiebke Lamer (Ph.D. Old Dominion University) is a Research and Teaching Fellow at the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation/Global Campus of Human Rights in Venice, Italy. Her research focuses on the intersection of media, democracy and international relations.