International Standards on Freedom of the Press

To understand the negative implications of lack of freedom of press, one only need look at the situation in nations with the most autocratic governments. Some of the bottom placed countries in the Freedom House list are also the most undemocratic.  For example, in the Middle East region, the most constricted press is seen in Iran.  This is not surprising given the current wave of Islamic fundamentalism that has gripped the country.  And where there is staunch religious orthodoxy, there tends to be less democracy.  Likewise, the last ranked country is North Korea, which has been under a military dictatorship for since the end of the war with South Korea.  For the people of these countries, there are innumerable dangers posed by the omnipotent power of the state.  The chief of those powers is the total control of media.  By controlling public discourse as it suits its interests, the totalitarian state stifles any dissent. Iran is a unique case, for its government is democratically elected and is yet authoritarian.  The public had perhaps unwittingly given reigns to a party steeped in religious orthodoxy.  The result is a total control and censorship of the press under its reign.

One might ask how freedom of press can affect the functioning of democratic societies.  But the correlation between the two is so strong that they are nearly synonymous.  For example, a free press creates an atmosphere where public are encouraged to comment and participate on the policy discourse.  This feedback is then utilized by elected representatives to understand public sentiment and the rationale behind it.  They can then advance, alter or abort their policy initiative as they see fit.  In this way a healthy channel for communication between elected representatives and their constituencies are opened up by free press.  A free press also affects other domains such as the arts and the humanities.  In an atmosphere where there is no fear of rebuke or censorship, artists and intellectuals will be uninhibited to express themselves. It is such an unfettered atmosphere that is most conducive to producing high art and critical thought.  It is not surprising then that the Western Europe region is home to a majority of Nobel Prize winners.  This heavy concentration of the most cherished recognition of the intellect is a testimony to the freedoms enjoyed in this region.

Just as there are positive consequences, there are many negative consequences to lack of freedom of press.  First, a curb on the freedom of press is also a curb on the freedom of expression of the individual. The media is the forum where journalists, academics, politicians and the public interact.  Hence a constriction of the range of discourse permitted within the media is at once the denying of a fundamental right to all these participant groups.  The participant groups are in turn comprised of individuals of all ages, genders and communal backgrounds. Hence a negation of freedom of press is simultaneously a profound blow to a fundamental right of citizens – namely, freedom of speech.  When such a fundamental right is denied, there are repercussions across other domains of society. For example, the realm of culture would be deeply affected.  Mediums of culture such as cinema, television, literature, etc would exhibit the cascade effects of censorship.  What begins as explicit or coerced censorship turns in no time into an internalized process.  The autocratic government need no longer threaten people, for they themselves have adopted a set of rules that suits the establishment.  In this context, the classic 1946 essay by George Orwell is very resonant here.  Orwell articulated how even in the seemingly ‘free’ post-war Britain, people are generally mute on account of years of indoctrination and conformity.

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