Freedom of the press or freedom of the media is the principle that communication and expression through various media, including printed and electronic media, especially published materials, should be considered a right to be exercised freely. Such freedom implies the absence of interference from an overreaching state; its preservation may be sought through constitutional or other legal protections.
With respect to governmental information, any government may distinguish which materials are public or protected from disclosure to the public. State materials are protected due to either of two reasons: the classification of information as sensitive, classified or secret, or the relevance of the information to protecting the national interest. Many governments are also subject to sunshine laws or freedom of information legislation that are used to define the ambit of national interest.
The United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "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".
This philosophy is usually accompanied by legislation ensuring various degrees of freedom of scientific research (known as scientific freedom), publishing, and press. The depth to which these laws are entrenched in a country's legal system can go as far down as its constitution. The concept of freedom of speech is often covered by the same laws as freedom of the press, thereby giving equal treatment to spoken and published expression.
Freedom of the press is construed as an absence of interference by outside entities, such as a government or religious organization, rather than as a right for authors to have their works published by other people. This idea was famously summarized by the 20th century American journalist, A. J. Liebling, who wrote, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one". Freedom of the press gives the printer or publisher exclusive control over what the publisher chooses to publish, including the right to refuse to print anything for any reason. If the author cannot reach a voluntary agreement with a publisher to produce the author's work, then the author must turn to self-publishing.
Beyond legal definitions, several non-governmental organizations use other criteria to judge the level of press freedom around the world. Some create subjective lists, while others are based on quantitative data:
Every year, the Committee to Protect Journalists releases its comprehensive list of all journalists killed in relation to their work, including profiles of each journalist and a database, and an annual census of journalists in jail as of midnight on December 1. 2017 was a record year for journalists jailed with 262 journalists behind bars. Turkey, China and Egypt accounted for more than half of all journalists jailed globally.
Every year, Reporters Without Borders establish a subjective ranking of countries in terms of their freedom of the press. Press Freedom Index list is based on responses to surveys sent to journalists that are members of partner organizations of the RWB, as well as related specialists such as researchers, jurists, and human rights activists. The survey asks questions about direct attacks on journalists and the media as well as other indirect sources of pressure against the free press, such as non-governmental groups.
In 2016, the countries where press was the most free were Finland, Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and New Zealand, followed by Costa Rica, Switzerland, Sweden, Ireland and Jamaica. The country with the least degree of press freedom was Eritrea, followed by North Korea, Turkmenistan, Syria, China, Vietnam and Sudan.
The problem with media in India, the world's largest democracy, is enormous. India doesn't have a model for a democratic press. The Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) has published a report on India stating that Indian journalists are forced—or feel compelled for the sake of job security—to report in ways that reflect the political opinions and corporate interests of shareholders. The report written by Ravi S Jha says "Indian journalism, with its lack of freedom and self-regulation, cannot be trusted now—it is currently known for manipulation and bias."
Freedom of the Press is a yearly report by US-based non-profit organization Freedom House. It is known to subjectively measure the level of freedom and editorial independence that is enjoyed by the press in every nation and significant disputed territories around the world. Levels of freedom are scored on a scale from 1 (most free) to 100 (least free). Depending on the basics, the nations are then classified as "Free", "Partly Free", or "Not Free".
According to Reporters Without Borders, more than a third of the world's people live in countries where there is no press freedom. Overwhelmingly, these people live in countries where there is no system of democracy or where there are serious deficiencies in the democratic process. Freedom of the press is an extremely problematic problem/concept for most non-democratic systems of government since, in the modern age, strict control of access to information is critical to the existence of most non-democratic governments and their associated control systems and security apparatus. To this end, most non-democratic societies employ state-run news organizations to promote the propaganda critical to maintaining an existing political power base and suppress (often very brutally, through the use of police, military, or intelligence agencies) any significant attempts by the media or individual journalists to challenge the approved "government line" on contentious issues. In such countries, journalists operating on the fringes of what is deemed to be acceptable will very often find themselves the subject of considerable intimidation by agents of the state. This can range from simple threats to their professional careers (firing, professional blacklisting) to death threats, kidnapping, torture, and assassination.
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Central, Northern and Western Europe has a long tradition of freedom of speech, including freedom of the press. After World War II, Hugh Baillie, the president of United Press wire service based in the U.S., promoted freedom of news dissemination. In 1966 he called for an open system of news sources and transmission, and minimum of government regulation of the news. His proposals were aired at the Geneva Conference on Freedom of Information in 1948, but were blocked by the Soviets and the French.
Media freedom is a fundamental right that applies to all member states of the European Union and its citizens, as defined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights as well as the European Convention on Human Rights.:1 Within the EU enlargement process, guaranteeing media freedom is named a "key indicator of a country's readiness to become part of the EU".
According to the New York Times, "Britain has a long tradition of a free, inquisitive press", but "[u]nlike the United States, Britain has no constitutional guarantee of press freedom." Freedom of the press was established in Great Britain in 1695, with Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian, stating: “When people talk about licensing journalists or newspapers the instinct should be to refer them to history. Read about how licensing of the press in Britain was abolished in 1695. Remember how the freedoms won here became a model for much of the rest of the world, and be conscious how the world still watches us to see how we protect those freedoms.”
Until 1694, England had an elaborate system of licensing; the most recent was seen in the Licensing of the Press Act 1662. No publication was allowed without the accompaniment of a government-granted license. Fifty years earlier, at a time of civil war, John Milton wrote his pamphlet Areopagitica (1644). In this work Milton argued forcefully against this form of government censorship and parodied the idea, writing "when as debtors and delinquents may walk abroad without a keeper, but unoffensive books must not stir forth without a visible jailer in their title." Although at the time it did little to halt the practice of licensing, it would be viewed later a significant milestone as one of the most eloquent defenses of press freedom.
Milton's central argument was that the individual is capable of using reason and distinguishing right from wrong, good from bad. In order to be able to exercise this ration right, the individual must have unlimited access to the ideas of his fellow men in “a free and open encounter." From Milton's writings developed the concept of the open marketplace of ideas, the idea that when people argue against each other, the good arguments will prevail. One form of speech that was widely restricted in England was seditious libel, and laws were in place that made criticizing the government a crime. The King was above public criticism and statements critical of the government were forbidden, according to the English Court of the Star Chamber. Truth was not a defense to seditious libel because the goal was to prevent and punish all condemnation of the government.
Locke contributed to the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695, whereupon the press needed no license. Still, many libels were tried throughout the 18th century, until "the Society of the Bill of Rights" led by John Horne Tooke and John Wilkes organized a campaign to publish Parliamentary Debates. This culminated in three defeats of the Crown in the 1770 cases of Almon, of Miller and of Woodfall, who all had published one of the Letters of Junius, and the unsuccessful arrest of John Wheble in 1771. Thereafter the Crown was much more careful in the application of libel; for example, in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre, Burdett was convicted, whereas by contrast the Junius affair was over a satire and sarcasm about the non-lethal conduct and policies of government.
In Britain's American colonies, the first editors discovered their readers enjoyed it when they criticized the local governor; the governors discovered they could shut down the newspapers. The most dramatic confrontation came in New York in 1734, where the governor brought John Peter Zenger to trial for criminal libel after the publication of satirical attacks. The defense lawyers argued that according to English common law, the truth was a valid defense against libel. The jury acquitted Zenger, who became the iconic American hero for freedom of the press. The result was an emerging tension between the media and the government. By the mid-1760s, there were 24 weekly newspapers in the 13 colonies, and the satirical attack on government became common features in American newspapers.
John Stuart Mill in 1869 in his book On Liberty approached the problem of authority versus liberty from the viewpoint of a 19th-century utilitarian: The individual has the right of expressing himself so long as he does not harm other individuals. The good society is one in which the greatest number of persons enjoy the greatest possible amount of happiness. Applying these general principles of liberty to freedom of expression, Mill states that if we silence an opinion, we may silence the truth. The individual freedom of expression is therefore essential to the well-being of society. Mill wrote:
Between September 4, 1770 and October 7, 1771 the kingdom of Denmark–Norway had the most unrestricted freedom of press of any country in Europe. This occurred during the regime of Johann Friedrich Struensee, whose second act was to abolish the old censorship laws. However, due to the great amount of mostly anonymous pamphlets published that was critical and often slanderous towards Struensee's own regime, he reinstated some restrictions regarding the freedom of press a year later, October 7, 1771.
After the Italian unification in 1861, the Albertine Statute of 1848 was adopted as the constitution of the Kingdom of Italy. The Statute granted the freedom of the press with some restrictions in case of abuses and in religious matters, as stated in Article 28:
The press shall be free, but the law may suppress abuses of this freedom. However, Bibles, catechisms, liturgical and prayer books shall not be printed without the prior permission of the Bishop.
After the abolition of the monarchy in 1946 and the abrogation of the Statute in 1948, the Constitution of the Republic of Italy guarantees the freedom of the press, as stated in Article 21, Paragraphs 2 and 3:
The press may not be subjected to any authorisation or censorship. Seizure may be permitted only by judicial order stating the reason and only for offences expressly determined by the law on the press or in case of violation of the obligation to identify the persons responsible for such offences.
The Constitution allows the warrantless confiscation of periodicals in cases of absolute urgency, when the Judiciary cannot timely intervene, on the condition that a judicial validation must be obtained within 24 hours. Article 21 also gives restrictions against those publications considered offensive by public morality, as stated in Paragraph 6:
Publications, performances, and other exhibits offensive to public morality shall be prohibited. Measures of preventive and repressive measure against such violations shall be established by law.
In 1933 freedom of the press was suppressed in Nazi Germany by the Reichstag Fire Decree of President Paul Von Hindenburg, just as Adolf Hitler was coming to power. Hitler largely suppressed freedom of the press through Joseph Goebbels' Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. The Ministry acted as a central control point for all media, issuing orders as to what stories could be run and what stories would be suppressed. Anyone involved in the film industry—from directors to the lowliest assistant—had to sign an oath of loyalty to the Nazi Party, due to opinion-changing power Goebbels perceived movies to have. (Goebbels himself maintained some personal control over every single film made in Nazi Europe.) Journalists who crossed the Propaganda Ministry were routinely imprisoned.
One of the world's first freedom of the press acts was introduced in Sweden in 1766, mainly due to classical liberal member of parliament, Ostrobothnian priest, Anders Chydenius. Excepted and liable to prosecution was only vocal opposition to the King and the Church of Sweden. The Act was largely rolled back after King Gustav's coup d'état in 1772, restored after the overthrowing of his son, Gustav IV of Sweden in 1809, and fully recognized with the abolition of the king's prerogative to cancel licenses in the 1840s.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that everyone has "the freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication."
The open court principle ensures the freedom of the press by requiring that court proceedings presumptively be open and accessible to the public and to the media.
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The Indian Constitution, while not mentioning the word "press", provides for "the right to freedom of speech and expression" (Article 19(1) a). However this right is subject to restrictions under sub clause, whereby this freedom can be restricted for reasons of "sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, preserving decency, preserving morality, in relation to contempt, court, defamation, or incitement to an offense". Laws such as the Official Secrets Act and Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act (PoTA) have been used to limit press freedom. Under PoTA, person could be detained for up to six months for being in contact with a terrorist or terrorist group. PoTA was repealed in 2006, but the Official Secrets Act 1923 continues.
For the first half-century of independence, media control by the state was the major constraint on press freedom. Indira Gandhi famously stated in 1975 that All India Radio is "a Government organ, it is going to remain a Government organ..." With the liberalization starting in the 1990s, private control of media has burgeoned, leading to increasing independence and greater scrutiny of government.
It ranks poorly at 138th rank out of 180 listed countries in the Press Freedom Index 2018 released by Reporters Without Borders (RWB). Analytically India's press freedom, as could be deduced by the Press Freedom Index, has constantly reduced since 2002, when it culminated in terms of apparent freedom, achieving a rank of 80 among the reported countries. In 2018, India's freedom of press ranking declined two placed to 138. In explaining the decline, RWB cited growing intolerance from Hindu nationalist supporters of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the murders of journalists such as Gauri Lankesh.
Bangladeshi media is reportedly following a self-censorship due to a controversial act named as Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act. Under this act, 25 journalists and several hundred bloggers and Facebook users are reportedly prosecuted in Bangladesh in 2017.
Bangladesh ranks poorly at 146th rank out of 180 listed countries in the Press Freedom Index 2018 released by Reporters Without Borders (RWB). Bangladeshi media has faced many problems in 2018. The country's most popular online newspaper bdnews24.com was blocked for a few hours on June 18, 2018 by Bangladesh's regulatory authority. Another newspaper The Daily Star's website was blocked for 22 hours on June 2, 2018 after it had published a report about a victim of an extrajudicial execution in the southeastern city of Cox's Bazar.
During the road-safety protests in 2018, Bangladeshi government switched off 3G and 4G mobile data and also arrested a photographer named Shahidul Alam under ICT act, after he had given an interview with Al Jazeera.
Many of the traditional means of delivering information are being slowly superseded by the increasing pace of modern technological advance. Almost every conventional mode of media and information dissemination has a modern counterpart that offers significant potential advantages to journalists seeking to maintain and enhance their freedom of speech. A few simple examples of such phenomena include:
Naturally, governments are responding to the challenges posed by new media technologies by deploying increasingly sophisticated technology of their own (a notable example being China's attempts to impose control through a state-run internet service provider that controls access to the Internet) but it seems that this will become an increasingly difficult task as journalists continue to find new ways to exploit technology and stay one step ahead of the generally slower-moving government institutions that attempt to censor them.
In May 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama signed legislation intended to promote a free press around the world, a bipartisan measure inspired by the murder in Pakistan of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter, shortly after the September 11 attacks in 2001. The legislation, called the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act, requires the United States Department of State to expand its scrutiny of news media restrictions and intimidation as part of its annual review of human rights in each country. In 2012 the Obama Administration collected communication records from 20 separate home and office lines for Associated Press reporters over a two-month period, possibly in an effort to curtail government leaks to the press. The surveillance caused widespread condemnation by First Amendment experts and free press advocates, and led 50 major media organizations to sign and send a letter of protest to American attorney general Eric Holder.
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