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Freedom of the Press 101: Definition, Examples, Significance

Freedom of the press is the principle that communication and expression through media is a fundamental right. Article 19 of the 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 and regardless of frontiers.” In this article, we’ll define freedom of the press, provide five key examples, and explain why a free press is so important.

Freedom of the press, which gives media like newspapers and TV news the right to communicate and express opinions, is essential to democracy and the protection of human rights.

What is freedom of the press?

Freedom of the press gives individuals and organizations the right to express, publish, and share information, ideas, and opinions without fear of censorship or government interference. It does not cover things like defamation, hate speech, and incitement to violence. In countries where freedom of the press is not protected, journalists, bloggers, political commentators, and others are frequently threatened. According to UNESCO, over 1,200 media professionals were killed between 2006 and 2020. In 90% of the cases, their murderers weren’t punished.

While the UDHR established freedom of the press in 1948, the concept is much older. In 1766, Sweden passed what’s considered the world’s first law protecting freedom of the press. It ended the government censorship of printed information. It also established that citizens of a state should be free to express and spread information without retaliation. 25 years later, the U.S. Constitution put free speech and a free press in the First Amendment.

What does freedom of the press look like?

Freedom of the press gives journalists, publishers, and other media the ability to uncover the truth, hold the powerful accountable, and share information that educates the public. Here are five examples of a free press in action:

Investigative reporting

Freedom of the press is vital to investigative reporting. While all reporting could technically be considered “investigative,” investigative journalists tend to report on especially serious issues, such as political corruption, crimes, major corporate scandals, human rights abuses, and so on. Investigative journalists collect massive amounts of in-depth research and communicate with people who often need to stay anonymous. In places where freedom of the press isn’t protected, investigative journalists face censorship and significant threats to their safety.

In 2021, reporter Timo Kollburner traveled to China to investigate the fast-fashion giant Shein. This company is known for cheap clothing and its mastery of social media, but for a while, no one was sure what was going on at their factories. Reporting for Public Eye, Kollbruner learned that thousands of Chinese workers work up to 12 hours a day with just one day off per month. Employees and undercover agents also reported that factories don’t use contracts, contribute to social security, or follow basic safety rules. Investigative reporting like this is essential to uncovering what the powerful want to keep hidden.

Whistleblower protections

Whistleblowers are individuals who share information about a private or public organization’s illegal, unsafe, or unethical actions. They’re usually employees of that organization. Because whistleblowers are at risk of retaliation from their organization, many countries have established protections. In 2019, the European Parliament approved new whistleblower rules protecting those who disclose information on illegal or harmful activities. They’re allowed to disclose information internally or externally, but if no appropriate action is taken, the whistleblower is still protected if they disclose information publicly. Public disclosure usually means going to a journalist. Freedom of the press gives journalists and publications the right to protect a whistleblower’s identity.

In 2004, a TV reporter from Providence, Rhode Island aired footage of a city official accepting a bribe from an undercover FBI informant. Because the tape he used had been sealed evidence, Jim Taricani was subpoenaed. He refused to reveal his source. Freedom of the press protected his right to keep it secret, he said, and his source had only given him the tape with the assurance of confidentiality. Taricani ended up serving six months of home confinement. The Reporters Committee, which is a nonprofit that provides pro bono legal services to journalists, released a statement supporting Taricani.

Political criticism

For the media, political criticism consists of reporting, analyzing, and commenting on any form of politics, such as politicians, legislation, and world events. Criticism occurs in newspapers, TV news, opinion pieces, political cartoons, talk shows, and more. Freedom of the press gives journalists, publishers, and TV networks the freedom to criticize any politician or legislation, regardless of how the target feels about it. In places without freedom of the press, political criticism is often illegal, so anyone (journalist or not) who engages in it is at risk of imprisonment or even death.

North Korea has some of the harshest punishments for political criticism. There are no independent media outlets, so all the state-run media companies show only political propaganda and praise for Kim Jong Un. All radio and TV sets bought in Korea can only receive government frequencies, and it’s illegal to tamper with the technology. Anyone who criticizes the government risks being sent to a prison camp where there’s forced labor, torture, and starvation.

Fair use

Fair use is a legal doctrine that grants limited use of copyrighted material. If something falls under the “fair use” umbrella, it’s not necessary to get permission from the copyright owner. It’s mostly used within the United States, but other countries have similar doctrines. What’s considered fair use? It depends on what the material will be used for. If it’s for criticism, comment, teaching, research, parody, and news reporting, you most likely don’t need to obtain permission. It also depends on what the copywritten material is, how much of the material is being used, and whether using the material significantly impacts the potential market for the work or not. Fair use matters to a free press because it gives journalists and other media outlets some freedom to use copyrighted material.

In 2011, Bloomberg secretly got a recording of a finance conference call from Swatch Group, the world’s largest watchmaker. The publication released the transcripts. Swatch sued for copyright infringement, but the court ruled that the use of the materials fell under fair use. The judge expressed some criticism of how Bloomberg handled the recording, but its use served an “important public purpose.”

Editorial independence

Editorial independence gives editors the freedom to make decisions without interference from the publication’s owners. Why is this so important? If a big story about the publication’s owners or an advertising client emerges, editorial independence lets the journalists cover it without retaliation. Editorial independence is important to freedom of the press. Without it, journalists and editors are bound to the whims of their publishers, advertisers, or the state. A study from 2021 found almost 80% of the world’s state-run media companies don’t have editorial independence.

RT (Russia Today) is a good example of a publication that is not editorially independent. The Russian government funds it, and its history of propaganda has been called out by academics, fact-checkers, and journalists. An analysis by Oliver Darcy, for which he watched RT for one day, found Russia portrayed as a “liberator” in the war in Ukraine. RT also failed to show the devastation caused by Russian forces in Ukraine.

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Why is freedom of the press significant?

Freedom of the press is one of the foundations for a strong democracy. Without a free press, it’s much harder for the public to receive information free from government interference, corruption, and propaganda. It’s also much harder for individuals and organizations to develop ideas about the world, learn from perspectives different from their own, understand how to protect human rights, and expose corruption. There’s a reason why authoritarian countries like Germany under Hitler, Cuba under Castro, North Korea, China, and Russia target the media so strictly. When governments and corporations control the press, they control the flow of information. They can shape reality into a form that favors them and punishes dissent. Information is power.

In 2023, freedom of the press is threatened all over the world. According to the World Press Freedom Index, the situation is “very serious” in 31 countries, “difficult” in 42, and “problematic” in 55. The environment for journalism is “satisfactory” in just 3 out of every 10 countries. The fake content industry is a big reason why. In the Index’s questionnaire, most respondents reported an increased spread of disinformation and propaganda campaigns. Disinformation blurs the lines between what’s real and what’s fake. Disinformation has always existed, but technologies like artificial intelligence, which can create very convincing photos, are making things even harder for fact-checkers, journalists, and the general public. Actions like better funding for local and independent news, stronger regulations for social media platforms, better legal protections for journalists, and increased support for organizations that help journalists are necessary for freedom of the press.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.