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Reflecting on the Historical and Ideological Foundations of Journalism: A Call to Protect Press Freedom
Freedom of the press is an inherent extension of almost all human notions of justice, regardless of socio-political systems.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19) unequivocally 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.”
Yet, in stark contrast, authoritarian regimes have long neglected the people as legitimate participants in affairs of the state beyond the filling of levies for war musters. Instead, a small, wealthy elite tells the masses as little or as much as they like, with notions of popular sovereignty barely present in their minds. Knowledge was once concentrated in the hands of the few, where intelligence agencies and espionage networks practised the famous dictum:
knowledge is power, and both are one and the same.
These contextual thoughts shed light on the dire circumstances faced by many nations today regarding press freedoms and freedom of speech. The University of Illinois published Four Theories of the Press by Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm in 1963, which created a typology of journalistic theory in the minds of students, teachers, and scholars. One part of the text argues that humanity must view men as rational beings who can discern truth from falsehood, seek alternative views, and establish a balanced perspective to draw informed conclusions.
While the truth is not governmental property, de facto truth often drives events that suggest might make right or suffer the consequences. In the past, governments or monarchs held absolute power or control over the ownership and content of the tools of mass communication. Yet, dissenting voices still existed, albeit small in comparison to those of their oppressors.
For centuries, those in positions of power have wielded control over the media landscape, determining who could own or influence the tools of mass communication. But even in the face of such oppression, dissenting voices have always managed to find a way to be heard. From the underground Samizdat literature of the Soviet era to the modern-day bloggers fighting for freedom of expression, these voices have persevered, their message resonating with those who dare to challenge the status quo. Though often outnumbered and outgunned, they refuse to be silenced, fighting for their right to be heard in a world that seeks to suppress them.
Criticism of the political machinery of a state or officialdom was impossible to achieve in the past as it is possible today with mass media. Channels of propaganda and dissemination were thoroughly dominated by the ruling caste, only allowing their primary functions of supporting and advancing their policies to exist.
In bygone eras, questioning the political apparatus of a state or its officials was a near-impossible feat, given the lack of mass media outlets that exist today. John Perkins, through his vivid depictions of the use of mass media as a weapon of mass destruction, has underscored this point with great emphasis. This hyper-effective tool of defamation is wielded with swift and ruthless precision, effectively discrediting and neutralizing political opponents by ruining their careers, families, and lives in one fell swoop. The few channels of propaganda and dissemination that were available in the past were thoroughly dominated by the ruling elite, existing only to promote and advance the policies of those who held the reins of power.
The overthrow of monarchical authoritarianism in England in 1688 refashioned society with the conviction that freedom cannot exist in a political system without a free media. Libertarians gave the freedom of the press a paramount position in their reinvention of the apparatus of government.
The right to search for the truth is an inalienable natural right of men. In the voice of Voltaire, Evelyn Beatrice Hall said,
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
The ascent of mass media has provided the public with an unprecedented level of access to information, enabling the challenging of conventional wisdom and the rise of dissenting voices. As a result, civic awareness and engagement have been significantly increased. However, it has been nearly a decade since a significant portion of media outlets have attempted to pass opinionated information as news, failing to hold corrupt officials accountable. Consequently, these officials acted with impunity, leading to the impoverishment of a significant portion of humanity. Meanwhile, the world has seen an unprecedented increase in billionaires in many corners.
As such, it is even more incumbent upon us to redouble our efforts in safeguarding the right to free and independent media, holding the powerful to account, and ensuring a society that is just and equitable for all.