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Avenues to Truth: A Free Press

Free Press
In the past 5 years, free press constraints and violations increased by 14%.

Do you care about your freedom?  If so, this article is for you.

Norway and North Korea – What do they have in common?  Overall, not much, with a significant difference between the two countries being that Norway is ranked number one on the 2017 World Press Freedom Index and North Korea is ranked 180—the very bottom of the list.

Since 2002, Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres, RSF)[1] has published the World Press Freedom Index as an advocacy tool to highlight the state of media freedom or the lack thereof.

In its 2017 report, RSF noted:

The 2017 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reflects a world in which attacks on the media have become commonplace and strongmen are on the rise. We have reached the age of post-truth, propaganda, and suppression of freedoms – especially in democracies.[2] [emphasis added]

That last sentence should be of immense concern to everyone.  A free press is a concern not only within dictatorships or other limited forms of governments, it matters in free societies, such as a democracy. According to RSF, their global indicator is now at 3,872, which is the highest point it has ever been.  This is not good news; the higher the number, the less the freedom of the press. In the past 5 years, free press constraints and violations increased by 14%.[3]

10 Worst Countries on Press Freedom

The worst ten countries on a free press were:

  • North Korea
  • Eritrea
  • Turkmenistan
  • Syria
  • China
  • Vietnam
  • Sudan
  • Cuba
  • Djibouti
  • Equatorial Guinea

Eritrea had been at the bottom for several years surrendering the bottom position to North Korea in 2017. [4]

Why does this matter?

Free Press
In a democracy we must have the opportunity to learn a variety of viewpoints

A morning routine for many citizens across the globe is to get up, and watch the morning news, or read the latest on-line stories, or for some to still read the morning newspaper.  Or maybe you obtain your news in the evenings after dinner.  But either way, depending on the person or the news outlet, the blood pressure may begin to rise or some choice words expressed in frustration at what was reported, or the article’s perspective.  But what is vital to acknowledge is that in a democracy we must have the opportunity to learn a variety of viewpoints, and discuss those points of view with others—hopefully without repercussions.

Thomas Jefferson wrote

“No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press.

Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804. ME 11:33

It has been recognized for over two hundred years that one of the best ways to ensure a democratic society is a free press.  Yet, in the United States and elsewhere, the free press is under attack. This is not a new or novel attack, but it has become extremely obvious.

What is forgotten is that without a free press, our ability to explore and ultimately challenge the events of the day is no longer possible.  How can an uninformed person challenge a government’s actions?

Hannah Arendt, (1906-1975) a German political theorist, once stated:

The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.[5]

Free Press
“Fake News” has become the phrase of the day when someone disagrees with a news story.

Fake News?

For the past couple of years in the United States, and elsewhere in the world, when someone disagrees with what is being reported, the cry has been “Fake News.”  Fake news is actually supposed to refer to information that consists of deliberate misinformation or it is a malicious hoax.  True fake news actually undermines serious media coverage, and as a result it becomes more difficult for journalists to cover significant news stories.

In some situations, yelling ‘Fake News’ may be appropriate.  However, in today’s society, the cry of “Fake News” has become the  phrase of the day when someone disagrees with a news story, not when it is deliberately false or a malicious hoax.

Don’t like the news?  Unless there was deliberate misinformation, the cry should never be ‘Fake News.’  The cry should be what do you base that opinion on?  What are your facts?  Evaluate and then discuss, not attack.  Is it harder to evaluate and discuss an issue with someone than yelling ‘Fake News?’  Of course it is.  It requires that we become informed on the issues. But remember that attacking the free press is attacking democracy.  Do you like your freedom?

John Stuart Mill, an English philosopher wrote:

The time, it is to be hoped, is gone by when any defense would be necessary of the ‘liberty of the press’ as one of the securities against corrupt or tyrannical government.  No argument, we may suppose, can now be needed, against permitting a legislature or an executive, not identified in interest with the people to prescribe opinions to them and determine what doctrines or what arguments they shall be allowed to hear.[6]

Unfortunately, it is clear that we must continue to defend the ‘liberty of the press,’ today and tomorrow.  We must continue raising our voices in opposition when a free press is attacked just because someone doesn’t like what is being said.

There are news outlets whose perspective I strongly disagree with, outlets that in my opinion do shabby investigation or clearly overlook the facts, as I understand them.  However, what is important is, if it is an independent outlet providing a different perspective, it must be allowed to speak and challenge my point of view, as I must continue to challenge its perspective.  All ‘avenues to truth’ must be open and available.   It is only through an informed citizenry that democracy can remain strong and vital.

 

Footnotes:

[1]    Reporters Without Borders, or Reporters Sans Frontières, is an international non-profit, non-governmental organization that promotes and defends freedom of information and freedom of the press.

[2]    Obtained from: https://rsf.org/en/2017-world-press-freedom-index-tipping-point

[3]   Obtained from: https://rsf.org/en/2017-world-press-freedom-index-tipping-point

[4]   The top ten best countries listed on the index are: 1. Norway; 2. Sweden; 3. Finland; 4. Denmark; 5. Netherlands; 6. Costa Rica; 7. Switzerland; 8. Jamaica; 9. Belgium; and 10. Iceland.  The United States was rated 43rd dropping 2 from the 2016 Index.

[5] Hannah Arendt made the comments in 1974 during an interview with the French writer Roger Errera.  Obtained from: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1978/10/26/hannah-arendt-from-an-interview/

[6] Mills, John Stuart. Chapter II: Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion, On Liberty (1859)

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