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The Two Sides of Press Freedom

Don't let it yellow: Freedom of Press / Photo: just.Luc, flickr

Freedom of press is challenged, if not restricted, in such places as Yemen, Venezuela, the US and Austria, say the authors of a Swiss public radio (DRS) program. As various as the countries are the causes of that challenge.

Whereas the makers of Al-Ayam in Aden are sitting on piles of newspapers because the Yemeni government prevents them from distributing their publication, Yemen Times is trying to accommodate the government in Sana’a by exercising self-censorship. In Latin America, Hugo Chavez is infamous for his hard hand on media, but also in Argentina the government has tried to restrict them.

But not all restrictions are due to despots, juntas or skittish administrations.

In the US, the challenge to press freedom is economic in nature: the financial crisis has severely weakened metropolitan newspapers. As an example, the DRS reporter mentions the Boston Globe, which during senatorial elections in previous years would dissect each candidate. Not so this time: Massachusetts’ citizens hardly know their new senator of choice, Scott Brown.

To those who wonder why freedom of the press is important, the reporters explain: “Dissent is part of the democratic system. This may include strong, loud or even offensive dissent. It is the media which represents this principle.” They further associate the media with “institutionalized skepticism”, “persistent questioning” and the “control function of government”.

If the media is so important to democracy, people should not leave it to the business cycle to determine its fate. Publicly funded organizations such as the US’ National Public Radio (NPR) or Austria’s ORF offer an alternative to the business logic. In the case of ORF, however, the authors discuss how the government has been trying to influence the organization and make it dependent on party politics.

Such are the challenges to press freedom. On the one hand, there are the cases where government restricts freedom; on the other, there are the cases where citizens don’t make use of their freedom because they lack the means to do so. This reminds me of Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty: Negative liberty, to put it simply, is the freedom to do whatever one likes; positive liberty is the ability to make use of this freedom reasonably.

Freedom from restriction is thus not enough to ensure a flourishing media culture. Freedom of press is something even the citizens of established democracies need to fight for relentlessly.

The ISN has a plethora of information on press freedom. Find out more here.

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