The American Revolution produced many notable newspapermen who wrote passionately in support of independence and who injected into their writings the idea of a free press. Many of their writings helped develop the press freedoms that were written into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
That is why the United States has been the world leader for press freedom for well over 200 years. The US press earned the title of the “Fourth Estate” because it positioned itself as a watchdog over the government.
This privileged press status is unique to the US as most of the world’s governments are just the opposite: watchdogs of the press. Journalists in two-thirds of the nations live in fear of censorship, restraint of publication, closure of press facilities, economic and ethical pressures, imprisonment and even execution.
According to a study released in May 2009 by Freedom House, a human rights organization that has been fighting tyranny around the world since 1941, journalists faced “an increasingly grim working environment in 2008, with global press freedom declining for a seventh straight year and deterioration occurring for the first time in every region.” Their study revealed twice as many losses as gains in press freedom in 2008 with notable declines in East Asia. Of special interest to citizen journalists is the finding that campaigns of intimidation targeting independent media are being waged in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East and North Africa.
The survey found that only 17 percent of the world's population lives in countries that enjoy a free press. Out of the 195 countries and territories covered in the study, 70 (36 percent) are rated Free, 61 (31 percent) are rated Partly Free and 64 (33 percent) are rated Not Free. This represents a modest decline from the 2008 survey in which 72 countries and territories were Free, 59 Partly Free and 64 Not Free.
What do governments do to control the press? According to FreedomHouse.org, three things: they consolidate control, use violence and impunity, and create oppressive laws.
Their report said that authoritarian regimes are increasingly consolidating control of the media. In the last five years, independent media outlets shrunk significantly in countries like Russia, Ethiopia and The Gambia. There’s even a concern of that happening in the USA as major media companies begin to fail and turn to the government for bailout cash.
Governments and non-state hooligans also use violence and physical harassment to frighten members of the media into silence, all without any fear of arrest or conviction. Many violent acts against members of the media go unsolved and therefore have a chilling effect, contributing to self-censorship.
Another way governments and private individuals continue to restrict media freedom is through laws that forbid "inciting hatred," commenting on sensitive topics such as religion or ethnicity, or "endangering national security." Libel and defamation laws remain a widespread way to punish the press.
There was a slight bit of good news in the Freedom House’s report. It included an internet freedom index that revealed the new media outlets are often freer than traditional media and have the potential to help to open the more repressive media environments such as China and Iran. However, as the new media gains influence, governments are beginning to crack down on Internet users by employing traditional means of repression.
Thomas Jefferson said, “Freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by a despotic government.” And it is truly amazing what governments will do to stop the world from discovering what they do behind closed doors. Even town councils and school boards in little towns can become despotic and try to hide their actions from the press.
On June 16, 2009 Dan Rather wrote, “The proliferation of information technology and the phenomenon of citizen journalism have made it much harder now to turn the lights out than it was two decades ago…It is too soon to know or to say how the situation in Iran will turn out, but there are lessons in this for our own country, for a democratic system more fragile than we at times like to believe. One of these lessons is the centrality of freedom of the press to the entire enterprise of democratic government: You cannot have one without the other. And the other is the lesson that citizen journalism is a way for the people to hold on to freedom of the press, even in times of oppression. In a turn of phrase that seems to be cropping up everywhere, the revolution may not be televised…but it very well could be Twittered.”
Citizen journalists believe that the best way to protect the public interest is for the sun to shine on all aspects of government. And the second best way to protect the public interest is to get the public involved in the process…to get them involved in their communities by empowering them to write, produce and publish news about people and events that impact their daily lives. All they ask for is the freedom to do it.
But this freedom is not free and will need to be defended. Author Dan Gillmor wrote about the challenge: “In short, we cannot just assume that self-publishing from the edges of our networks – the grassroots journalism we need so desperately – will survive, much less thrive. We will need to defend it, with the same vigor we defend our other liberties.” Dan Gillmor, We the Media, pg. XXVII