Freedom of the Press is an essential aspect of functioning democracies. Be it an institution or an individual, the liberty to express openly is the most important of attributes. The press, in particular, being the Fourth Estate of a democratic society, is expected to be bold and articulate. But ground realities differ from ideal conceptions of the function of the press. In the real world, an array of external factors coaxes or coerces the press into acting against democratic principles. These include advertisers, political parties, businesses and even special interest citizen groups. In this backdrop, it is interesting to analyze the state of freedom of press in the world today. It is an interesting exercise to find out which countries are exemplary and which are at a nadir. After all, freedom of press has an immediate bearing on the lives and prospects of citizens. It is not an abstract idea whose relevance is confined merely to the academia.
The Freedom House ranking is based on the evaluation of three key parameters: Economic Environment, Political Environment and Legal Environment. The three parameters are given equal weight and a cumulative number called the Press Freedom Score is arrived at. It is usually the case that a country that fares poorly in one count also fares poorly in other parameters. This is so because the legal, political and economic conditions are mostly interlinked. To elaborate,
“The index assesses the degree of print, broadcast, and internet freedom in every country in the world, analyzing the events of each calendar year. It provides numerical rankings and rates each country’s media as “Free,” “Partly Free,” or “Not Free.” Country narratives examine the legal environment for the media, political pressures that influence reporting, and economic factors that affect access to information.” (freedomhouse.org)
The comprehensive ranking of all the countries in the world presented by Freedom House is very informative. What stands out in the ranking is how the United States, despite its self-proclaimed status as a promoter of freedom and democracy across the world, is actually ranked twenty-third. In fact most countries in Western Europe fare better than the United States. Leading the chart are the Nordic nations of Norway and Sweden, followed by Belgium, Finland and Netherlands. They are followed by Denmark, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Andorra and Iceland. From this assembly of the Top 10 countries one could discern a pattern. The Nordic and Scandinavian nations are the most exceptional and exemplary in this respect. Likewise, the smaller democracies of Western Europe fare better compared to their larger counterparts such as France (35) or Germany (19). Yet, taken as a continental bloc, North-Western Europe is the region where freedom of press can be said to flourish. There are several benign consequences of this freedom in the region. It is no coincidence that this regional bloc is the most vibrant in terms of arts and literature. Be it cinema or the plastic arts, the North-Western Europe stands out in terms of quality, novelty of ideas and creativity. The same is true with respect to the continuing literary and intellectual tradition in this region.
To understand the negative implications of lack of freedom of press, one only need look at the situation in nations with the most autocratic governments. Some of the bottom placed countries in the Freedom House list are also the most undemocratic. For example, in the Middle East region, the most constricted press is seen in Iran. This is not surprising given the current wave of Islamic fundamentalism that has gripped the country. And where there is staunch religious orthodoxy, there tends to be less democracy. Likewise, the last ranked country is North Korea, which has been under a military dictatorship for since the end of the war with South Korea. For the people of these countries, there are innumerable dangers posed by the omnipotent power of the state. The chief of those powers is the total control of media. By controlling public discourse as it suits its interests, the totalitarian state stifles any dissent. Iran is a unique case, for its government is democratically elected and is yet authoritarian. The public had perhaps unwittingly given reigns to a party steeped in religious orthodoxy. The result is a total control and censorship of the press under its reign.
One might ask how freedom of press can affect the functioning of democratic societies. But the correlation between the two is so strong that they are nearly synonymous. For example, a free press creates an atmosphere where public are encouraged to comment and participate on the policy discourse. This feedback is then utilized by elected representatives to understand public sentiment and the rationale behind it. They can then advance, alter or abort their policy initiative as they see fit. In this way a healthy channel for communication between elected representatives and their constituencies are opened up by free press. A free press also affects other domains such as the arts and the humanities. In an atmosphere where there is no fear of rebuke or censorship, artists and intellectuals will be uninhibited to express themselves. It is such an unfettered atmosphere that is most conducive to producing high art and critical thought. It is not surprising then that the Western Europe region is home to a majority of Nobel Prize winners. This heavy concentration of the most cherished recognition of the intellect is a testimony to the freedoms enjoyed in this region.
Just as there are positive consequences, there are many negative consequences to lack of freedom of press. First, a curb on the freedom of press is also a curb on the freedom of expression of the individual. The media is the forum where journalists, academics, politicians and the public interact. Hence a constriction of the range of discourse permitted within the media is at once the denying of a fundamental right to all these participant groups. The participant groups are in turn comprised of individuals of all ages, genders and communal backgrounds. Hence a negation of freedom of press is simultaneously a profound blow to a fundamental right of citizens – namely, freedom of speech. When such a fundamental right is denied, there are repercussions across other domains of society. For example, the realm of culture would be deeply affected. Mediums of culture such as cinema, television, literature, etc would exhibit the cascade effects of censorship. What begins as explicit or coerced censorship turns in no time into an internalized process. The autocratic government need no longer threaten people, for they themselves have adopted a set of rules that suits the establishment. In this context, the classic 1946 essay by George Orwell is very resonant here. Orwell articulated how even in the seemingly ‘free’ post-war Britain, people are generally mute on account of years of indoctrination and conformity.