By Hyeji Kim
We live surrounded by futuristic information technology ranging from Facebook and Google to wearable mobile gear. Yet, despite the gigantic leaps in technology for sharing information, many parts of the world still lack the right to share information at all. Reporters Without Borders have updated the World Press Freedom Index, measuring the level of freedom of information of both provider and recipient in 180 different countries. The indices show that many countries are behaving anachronistically by suppressing the media and journalists.
This kind of oppression takes many forms, ranging from censorship and legislative barriers to actual physical abuse and even abduction of journalists. The sources and causes for oppression vary greatly. Journalists are faced with assaults from all sides: the police, criminal groups, angered demonstrators, and devout political party supporters. In any case, different groups often see the media as a strategic target necessary to either achieve their political goals or cover their wrongful doings.
Today is World Press Freedom Day — a day for celebrating the vital role that a free media plays in democracy.
With journalists and media institutions increasingly under attack — both in conflict zones like Syria and in places like Hungary that were once considered consolidated democracies — in 2013 it is more important than ever to focus on the role that the media plays in a free society. While almost 40 percent of the world’s population now lives in a “free” democracy, just one in six live in societies with a fully free media, according to Freedom House’s most recent Freedom of the Press rankings. Freedom cannot be sustained without a strong, independent, inquisitive, and open media environment.
Freedom of the press is an essential component of a genuine democracy. That is why Thomas Jefferson expressed that, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Indeed, one of the most powerful development messages is written in the U.S. constitution: “Congress shall make no law (…) prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
Freedom of the press’ key contribution to democracy is its unique ability to restrain government power by increasing transparency, advancing accountability, and circulating diverse opinions. Autocratic governments understand this very well and try to constantly control the press. Where there are no unambiguous laws protecting freedom of the press, politicians of all stripes utilize ingenious schemes to control the media.
Argentina is a case in point, where freedom of the press is under constant threat by the state as a result of flimsy legal protections. In fact, the current government recently passed a new law that gives government the power to decide when a media company is too big and makes newspapers more dependent on government advertising.