Journalism in a democracy: the relation between press freedom and democracy

Many people in industralised countries probably take it for granted that they have a wide range of newspapers, TV channels, and online media to receive their (daily) input from. However, journalism is an important factor in a democracy because they have important roles such as watchdogs over the government and those in power but also to help form a public opinion. But what is the relationship between press freedom and democracy?

IMG_2374First of all, there are many definitions of press freedom from many different people and organisations. To start with, here the definition given by the United Nations: For them, free media needs to have certain characteristics such as to “ensure transparency, accountability, and the rule of law; to promote participation in public and political discourse, and to contribute to the fight against poverty”. These characteristics of an independent, free, and pluralistic media are important because they are central to good governance in a democracy.

 

Media is all about the community that it serves

Media is all about the community that it serves. Hence, independent media receive their power from the citizens and in return empowers these citizens to be able being part in the democratic process. Because for an informed debate, there needs to be freedom of information and expression and citizens need to have access to this information via free media.

For McQuail press freedom goes beyond this. On the one hand, the content of media or press freedom is the degree of freedom and access of citizens to media content, but on the other hand, it is also the degree of freedom enjoyed by the media. “The essential norm is that media should have a certain independence, sufficient to protect free and open public expression of ideas and information. The second part of the issue raises the question of diversity, a norm that opposes concentration of ownership and monopoly of control, whether on the part of the state or private media industries.”

John Milton opts for press freedom saying that “truth can only be found if one considered it possible that the others might be right, too. Truth can be found in debate. Censorship would make the finding of truth by public argumentation impossible.”

And what exactly is democracy? Oxford University Press provides a rather short definition of democracy saying that it is “A system of government by the wholepopulation or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives”. The United Nations provide a more extensive definition by explaining that democracy is based on the freely expressed will of the people and that it is closely linked to the rule of law, human rights, dignity, and other fundamental freedoms which are respected and promoted.

Additionally, democracy also means that people have a say in decisions that are affecting their lives and that they can hold decision-makers to account. This is based on inclusive and fair rules, institutions, and practices that govern social interactions. All this happens under the assumption that all people are equal and free of discrimination regardless of their sex, ethnicity, social class, etc. This all contributes to the economic and social policies that are responsive to people’s needs and aspirations. “Therefore, democratic governance is the process of creating and sustaining an environment for inclusive and responsive political processes and settlements” as the United Nations explain.

Also Andrés Gómez Vela reflects upon the construct of democracy coming to the conclusion that democracy is never done. For him it is a continuous process that has a legal and political system which is unfinished and always advancing in line with the political thoughts that are advancing. Kunczik mentions the importance of trust in democracy. According to him “democracy is a form of living together which depends to an extremely high degree not on control, but above all on trust (…)”.

So now we know what is press freedom and we know what is democracy, but what exactly is their relation?

Deutsch Karlekar and Becker did research on the correlation between press freedom and general freedom in the world. For them, press freedom is a key indicator for the general level of democracy in a country as the strong correlation in the graph displays. They observed that many times “changes in the state of media freedom have happened in tandem with changes in broader freedoms, therefore making it a sensitive indicator of the overall health of a democracy”. In general, negative changes in press freedom and freedom of expression do not only occur in authoritarian regimes but also in long-established democracies.

Thus, the direction in which press freedom but also democracy in general will go is highly influenced by the political system and the attitude of the ruling government towards the media. Support for free and pluralistic media is often accompanied by an acceptance of the opposition and critique more in general. By contrast, when governments start to criticise or even intimidate the opposition; this often begins with a tightening of the media. Hence, this study underpins that media freedom, press freedom, and freedom of expression are crucial indicators for the either expanding or restriction of general freedoms. Concluding, the two researchers found out that there is an indication for “a stepped-up drive by authoritarian governments to weaken precisely the elements of democratic governance that pose the most serious threats to repressive and corrupt rule: independent civil society groups, a free press, and the rule of law”.

Hence, journalism plays a vital role in the creation, designing, and maintaining of democracy.