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By Mark DaCosta- Freedom of the press is recognised as an integral and indispensable pillar of democracy, so much so that the absence of that freedom is seen to disqualify a territory from claiming to be democratic.
While press freedom has, for many years, been considered a self-explanatory, easily defined term, the modern era has brought with it many challenges including far-reaching and fundamental questions. Now, even the definition of press freedom is being reexamined. Many of those modern challenges came about with the advent of social media platforms and other means of rapidly spreading ideas and information.
Freedom of the press, as a concrete legally defined concept, can be traced to December 2, 1766. On that day the Swedish parliament passed The Freedom of the Press Act. That legislation is now recognised as the world’s first law supporting the freedom of the press and freedom of information.
That Swedish law codified the principle—which has since become a cornerstone of democracy—that individual citizens of a State should be able to express and disseminate information without fear of reprisal. Since then, laws protecting press freedom have been passed in the vast majority of countries, and it is now one of the rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on December 10, 1948.
In the modern era, though, the concept of press freedom is becoming increasingly complex. It is now possible — owing to the availability of the internet and other technologies — to disseminate ideas to billions of people almost instantaneously.
Simultaneous with this new technological reality are two psychological facts. 1. The tendency of most humans to believe, accept, and spread ideas without fact checking those ideas. And 2, the “confirmation bias,” which is the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs. In other words, we seek out ideas and opinions that conform and reinforce what we already believe or want to believe.
The challenges posed by modern reality are obvious. For example, false, incendiary, inflammatory information can be easily generated and spread. Persons — perhaps, entire communities — may act on that false information resulting in unrest, violence, and even death.
The events of January 6, 2021 United States Capitol attack come to mind. That unprecedented, deadly event was the direct result of demonstrably false ideas and inflammatory rhetoric being spread. Evidently, under current conditions, experts are totally justified in reexamining the fundamentals of what exactly constitutes press freedom.
The question of how to solve the new challenges has not yet been settled by experts; the matter is still being debated by academics, journalists, politicians and social scientists. Presently, Cambridge University, among other academic institutions, is studying the matter. In a preliminary assessment of the problem, Cambridge outlined the huge challenge in a statement. The statement — focusing on the political aspect of the matter, says,
“As internet penetration rapidly expanded throughout the world, press freedom and government accountability improved in some countries but backslid in others. We propose a formal model that provides a mechanism that explains the observed divergent paths of countries. We argue that increased access to social media makes partial capture, where governments allow limited freedom of the press, an untenable strategy.
“By amplifying the influence of small traditional media outlets, higher internet access increases both the costs of capture and the risk that a critical mass of citizens will become informed and overturn the incumbent. Depending on the incentives to retain office, greater internet access thus either forces an incumbent to extend capture to small outlets, further undermining press freedom; or relieves pressure from others.”
Evidently, the advent of the internet has not only fundamentally altered the media landscape, it has also sparked widespread discussions about the most basic ideas of what exactly constitutes press freedom. Such discussions are to be encouraged, as they will lead to an improved understanding of the rapidly changing society in which we live, and guide decision makers as new legislation, new regulations, and administrative changes are contemplated and formulated to ensure that a free press retains its rightful place as a pillar of democracy. Notably, all things being considered, it is quite likely that a new definition will emerge for the term Freedom of the Press.