Freedom of the press is the right to communicate freely through various printed and electronic media.
In 2015, two terrorists broke into the office of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and murdered 12 people. In the next few days, several related attacks followed in Île-de-France. All this was in response to the newspaper’s controversial depictions of Muhammad.
The Charlie Hebdo incident brings to light many questions related to press freedom. How can societies protect those who “offend” sentiments? Can people be allowed to express themselves freely even if there are grave repercussions? To what extent can governments restrict such expressions?
Press Freedom Definition
The United Nations defines the freedom of the press in the following way:
“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.” (1948).
It implies that the government or any other institution will not interfere with what is published.
However, there is always some level of restriction on press freedom, usually to protect the national interest and secure classified information.
Freedom of the press is a crucial component of democracy. If journalists can report on matters freely, they act as a watchdog of private and government action. By sharing these insights, they help maintain an informed citizenry of voters. (Ambrey, 2015).
A free press can also convey the people’s needs and wants to government bodies (Freedom House). Finally, it provides a platform for the open exchange of information and ideas. In most Western-style democracies, there is a very liberal interpretation of this value: journalists keep their sources confidential and even criticize the government freely (Lewis, 1999).
Freedom of the Press Examples
1. Absence of Prior Restraint
One defining characteristic of the freedom of the press is the absence of prior restraint. It means that the government cannot prevent a story or report from being published before it is published.
This principle is sustained in the landmark legal case Near v. Minnesota (1931), where the Supreme Court ruled that the state’s “gag law” violated the First Amendment. Allowing the government to preview and potentially censor press material before publication would strip the media of its most fundamental freedom – the right to truthfully inform the public.
2. Protection Against Retribution
Another crucial characteristic of press freedom is protection against retribution for publications. That is, journalists should be able to perform their duties without fear of reprisals, such as fines, imprisonment, or other punitive measures.
Again, this principle was upheld in the milestone case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964).
The Supreme Court ruled that public figures must prove “actual malice” — knowing falsehood or reckless disregard for the truth — in libel cases. This key decision reinforced that the press must be protected from undue repercussions for accurately reporting controversial issues.
3. Right to Access Information
The freedom of the press extends to the right to access relevant information.
A free press must have the ability to research, investigate, and inquire about matters of public interest without undue restriction.
For instance, Freedom of Information laws in many countries (like the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, 1966) allow journalists to request access to certain types of governmental information that are essential for reporting.
4. Protection of Confidential Sources
The right to protect confidential sources is an essential element of press freedom.
Reporters must often rely on anonymous informants for sensitive information, particularly when dealing with whistleblower situations or investigations into unethical or illegal activities.
Shield laws, such as those that exist in various U.S. states, protect journalists from being forced to reveal their sources, thereby encouraging open lines of communication.
5. Editorial Independence
Editorial independence is a cornerstone of press freedom. Media outlets need to be free from influence or control by government, advertisers, or corporate sponsors to ensure the uninterrupted flow of honest, fair, and critical reporting.
This characteristic upholds the central role of the press as a watchdog entity, responsible for holding power accountable (like the case of Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, 1974). It underscores the importance of the press in promoting discourse, questioning authority, and fostering a well-informed citizenry.
6. Right to Publish Without Fear of Imprisonment
One of the crucial rights that constitute freedom of the press is the right to publish without fear of imprisonment.
Journalists need the assurance that they can report on important issues, even controversial ones, without fear of being incarcerated for their work.
This right was reaffirmed in many instances, including the notable case of Zenger Trial (1735), which set an essential precedent for freedom of the press in colonial America.
7. Right to Cross Examine
Press freedom also entails a reporter’s right to cross-examine. This means that journalists should be allowed to question thoroughly and intensely when reporting on matters of public interest, especially those related to governance and policy.
This was illustrated in the U.S legal case of Davis v. Alaska (1974), confirming that cross-examination is a fundamental aspect of the reporting process.
8. Right to Attend Public Trials
A key characteristic of press freedom involves the media’s right to attend public trials.
This principle dates back to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia (1980). The court determined that both the press and public have the right to attend criminal trials.
This exposure helps ensure transparency and accountability in the legal process, aiding journalists in their mission to keep the populace abreast of justice being served.
9. Right to Non-Discrimination
Inherent in the freedom of the press is the right to non-discrimination. Media outlets and journalists should not face bias or prejudice based on their affiliation, content, or geographic location.
For example, in principle ina society with free press, a journalist should not be excluded from a press conference based purely on their affiliation with a particular media outlet, even if that outlet might report in ways that the person holding the press conference does not like.
10. Right to Report on Government Proceedings
The freedom of the press entails the right to report on government proceedings.
This guarantees that journalists have unfettered access to sessions of legislative bodies, court hearings, and other public meetings where policy decisions are made.
This principle was underlined in the case of Gannett Co. v. DePasquale (1979), when the Supreme Court determined a significant restriction on press coverage of a pretrial hearing violated the Sixth Amendment.
11. Right to Protection During Conflict
The press’s freedom extends to the right to protection while covering conflicts, both domestic and international.
Journalists have the right to report on wars, civil unrest, and other strife-torn situations without fear of harm or retaliation.
The Geneva Convention of 1949, updated in Additional Protocol I in 1977, offers legal protections to war correspondents, confirming the importance of this right.
Free Press Case Studies
12. The Pentagon Papers
The Pentagon Papers serve as a salient example of the freedom of the press. Published by The New York Times in 1971, these documents exposed the U.S. government’s deceptions about Vietnam War activities.
The government tried to suppress the dissemination of these papers, but the Supreme Court upheld the Times’ right to publish them (New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713). This reaffirmed the press’s freedom to publish truthful items of public concern, even when the information is classified or portrays the government unfavorably.
13. The Watergate Scandal
The Watergate Scandal provides another critical illustration of press freedom in action.
Two journalists from The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, uncovered a scandal in 1972 perpetrated by President Nixon’s administration. Their thorough investigative reporting led to public hearings and eventually culminated in President Nixon’s resignation.
Yet again, the legal protection extended to journalists (Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665) facilitated their task. They were free to investigate and reveal the truth, proving the essential role of the press in upholding democratic values.
14. The Edward Snowden Disclosures
The Edward Snowden case represents another key example of the freedom of the press. In 2013, Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, revealed sweeping surveillance programs instituted by the U.S. government.
This classified intelligence was published by The Guardian and The Washington Post.
The decision to publish was not without controversy, but it embodies the press’s constitutional right to inform the public about government activities, even if those activities are classified (The Guardian v. U.K. Government, 2013).
15. Spotlight Investigation by The Boston Globe
The Boston Globe’s exposure of the Catholic Church scandal in 2002 provides a non-governmental example of press freedom.
Through relentless investigative work, the paper’s Spotlight team revealed a widespread pattern of child abuse by priests and subsequent cover-ups by the Church. This revelation elicited massive public outcry and instigated significant reforms within the Catholic Church globally.
The freedom of the press ensured these abuses could not continue hidden from public scrutiny (The Boston Globe v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, 2002).
16. Publication of the Panama Papers
An extraordinary demonstration of the freedom of the press is the publication of the Panama Papers in 2016.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, together with newspapers from around the world, released more than 11.5 million leaked files. These files revealed how offshore companies were used to conceal wealth, evade taxes, and promote illegal activity.
The story affected numerous high-profile figures and countries, sparking a global conversation about wealth inequality and tax evasion. Even amid legal threats and intense pressure, the press was able to disseminate this crucial information freely (Süddeutsche Zeitung v. The Panamanian Law Firm Mossack Fonseca, 2016).
Countries with Free Press
A wide range of democratic nations have free press rules. Here are just three:
1. The United Kingdom
The United Kingdom has a long history of press freedom, although there is no constitutional guarantee of the same.
Until 1694, there was an elaborate licensing system in Great Britain, meaning that no publication was allowed without a license from the government.
Around that time, famous writers like John Milton were highly critical of licensing, arguing that it prevented the free exchange of ideas. Clearly defined political parties and a public sphere were also emerging, all of which led to the lapse of the Licensing Act.
2. The United States of America
In the US, the freedom of the press is protected by the First Amendment, which states that Congress cannot make a law against “freedom of speech, or of the press”.
Although the mainstream media is free from government interference, many popular news outlets are owned by a small number of wealthy individuals.
Moreover, the media is becoming quite partisan, which is hurting objectivity and the public’s confidence – demonstrating a flaw in the concept of unfettered free speech in today’s world. There’s an implicit responsibility that journalists seek objectivity, which is not as profitable as sensational partisanship.
Further more, the US’s treatment of Julian Assange damages its claim to free speech and a free press.
Sweden introduced one of the world’s first freedom of the press acts in 1766.
This was mainly due to Anders Chydenius, a classical liberal member of parliament. However, it was still not allowed to speak against the king or the Church of Sweden.
In 1772, King Gustav’s coup d’état rolled back the act, but then it was restored after the overthrow of his son (Gustav IV of Sweden) in 1809. In the 1840s, the king’s right to cancel licenses was also removed, and today, Sweden is among the top countries in terms of the free press.
The Indian Constitution does not mention the term press, but it protects “the right to freedom of speech and expression” (Article 19).
However, it also states the right can restricted for various reasons, such as protecting the “sovereignty and integrity of India”, “preserving morality”, defamation, etc. For the first fifty years after freedom, the government strictly controlled the media.
After liberalization in the 1990s, private control of media grew, but India still ranks very poorly (142nd out of 180) in the Press Freedom Index. RSF pointed out that this is due to the growing intolerance from Hindu nationalist supporters and the murders of journalists like Gauri Lankesh.
Press in Non-Democratic States
In non-democratic states, there is little to no press freedom because otherwise, the regime’s existence would be threatened.
Reporters Without Borders states that more than a third of the world’s population lives in countries where there is no press freedom (2003). Most of these countries are non-democratic or their democracies are incredibly flawed.
In such states, the ruling power strictly controls access to information, and this control is necessary for the existence of the regime. They mostly have state-run news organizations to spread their political propaganda.
This allows them to promote ideas supportive of the existing political power base and suppress any attempt to challenge the government. Often, this suppression is done quite brutally, using police or intelligence agencies.
In such countries, journalists must be extremely cautious in their work, and they are often targeted by state agents. This can range from a simple professional threat (blacklisting) to extreme forms of violence, including assassination.
Measuring Press Freedom
Several non-governmental organizations use different criteria to measure the level of press freedom across the world.
One factor that most studies consider is the number of journalists who are attacked in any way (harassed, arrested, or murdered). The Committee of Protect Journalists (CPJ) found out that 262 journalists were jailed in 2017
Three countries—Turkey, China, and Egypt account—account for more than half of all global journalists arrested. Reporters Without Borders (RWB) takes into account various other factors in compiling its global Press Freedom Index.
These include the existence of state monopolies on TV or radio, the level of censorship or self-censorship, and the overall independence of media. They also consider the level of difficulties that foreign reporters may face in measuring press freedom.
As per the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, the eight countries with the most press freedom are Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Portugal, and Costa Rica. On the opposite end of the spectrum lie countries like North Korea, Eritrea, and Iran. (RWB, 2022).
New Media Technologies and Freedom of Press
New media technologies provide greater power to journalists and limit the government’s ability to interfere.
Unlike conventional forms of media, new-age technologies are much more difficult for the government to control. For example, traditional newspapers and magazines rely on physical resources (such as offices, printing press, etc.), which can be easily targeted and shut down.
However, digital newspapers and magazines are run on inexpensive web servers that can be based anywhere in the world. It is much more difficult for governments to attack these. Even when they try measures like blocking websites, these can be easily bypassed.
The Internet not only provides easier access to information, but it also gives people resources to remain anonymous and browse without fear. Unlike conventional telephone systems, which can be easily tapped, modern VOIP technology offers low-cost and strong cryptography.
Therefore, it is now much more difficult for governments to monitor anyone, including journalists. People across the world can communicate securely and instantly. However, now governments are also trying to find new ways to suppress these technologies. For example, China is now trying to employ a state-run internet service provider, which would control access to the internet.
Freedom of the press is the right of people to express themselves freely through published media.
It implies that the government and institutions do not interfere with what is published, although some restrictions exist everywhere. In non-democratic states, there is little to no press freedom. New-age technologies allow greater freedom of expression through digitalization and anonymity, but governments are also trying to keep up with these advances.
Ambrey, C. L., Fleming, C. M., Manning, M., & Smith, C. (2016). On the confluence of freedom of the press, control of corruption and societal welfare. Social Indicators Research, 128, 859-880.
Freedom House. (2023). “Media Freedom”. Freedom House. doi: https://freedomhouse.org/issues/media-freedom
Lewis, J. R. (1999). The Human Rights Encyclopedia. Sharpe Reference.
Reporters Without Borders. (2003) “Description: Reporters Without Borders”. The Media Research Hub. Social Science Research Council. 2003.
Reporters Without Borders. (2022) “2022 World Press Freedom Index | Reporters Without Borders”. RSF.
United Nations. (2018) “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. United Nations. Archived from the original on 24 February 2018.