Freedom. Mostly defined as the absence of constraint. Or the power or right to act, think or speak as we want. Many of us take freedom for granted while others go about in their myopic belief that in the 21st century, freedom is a given. Humans’ greatest weakness is not our propensity for destruction (which is based upon our instinctual drive for survival) but in our short memories. We forget the battles fought to give voice to the people around the world. And in doing so, are doing ourselves an overwhelming injustice.

The Press: Vigilant Guardians of the Truth (When They Are Allowed To)

Suppression of the press has been well documented throughout the ages. Whether through censorship, publication and licensing restrictions or punishment, those involved in the publication of the truth have been subjected to different forms of restraint. In fact, these gag methods have closely followed the invention of the printing press. As early as 1501, Pope Alexander VI had all circulars, news reports and articles submitted to church authorities prior to publication. The official reason? To ensure that no heresy was unwittingly distributed to the masses.

Politics soon took over from religion as the main reason for the quelling of the press. The Tudor and Stuart monarchy in England used censorship as a tool to stamp out criticism and dissent against the royal family. Over time, seditious libel laws were passed to provide the authorities the power to act against publications which were deemed to vilify the government. There was no clear definition of what amounted to seditious libel but those in power often took it to mean anyone who was critical of government policies.

What about America, the land of the free? Surely in America, people can say what they want, whenever and however they wish to. After all, freedom of speech, press, religion and expression are enshrined in the Constitution of the country. The First Amendment clearly states that ‘Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…’ The First Amendment has been used to guarantee that publication of truthful reports in the USA will not be met by sanctions or government interference. However, media independence in America has always been a main talking point in an industry plagued by accusations of bias and rocked by one scandal after another.

The Press: Threats To The Fourth Estate

In essence, freedom of the press is the inherent right of human beings to share and circulate ideas. The press is not merely the specific mouthpiece of the government or in the sole ownership of those in the media industry. At its core, freedom of the press is the ability for every individual to distribute published material to a wider audience. In a sense, all of us can be journalists and in our own way, this is what we do through social media. When we write a tweet which is retweeted multiple times over, our views have been shared with more than our followers. 

In these modern times, freedom of the press should not even be up for debate. Unfortunately, things could not be farther from the truth. Under the guise of homeland security, governments are pointing to the press as threats to the country. In 2013, the US Department of Justice seized records of thousands of calls from the office of the Associated Press. In Australia, Section 35P of the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2014 states that ‘disclosure of information relating to a special intelligence operation is a criminal offence’. 

Are we all so worried about these threats that we are jumping at shadows and creating more restrictions and roadblocks? Where is the balance between freedom and security? Like it or not, terrorism is a major part of the world we live in. But does this justify giving up a portion of our freedom just so governments can act as they will ‘for the greater good’? The problem starts when it’s just one party which is responsible for defining the greater good. And this happens even in the strongest of democracies.

There desperately needs to be a more distinct line between the way governance and the measures they take in order to do it. The press have traditionally strived to hold governments accountable through scrupulous reporting and undaunted pursuits of the truth. Yes, there have been some bad eggs along the way however these should not be used to tar all journalists on the same brush. 

Then there is the matter of the technological advancements that have seemingly made it easier for us to connect with each other. Supposedly this should make reporting a whole lot faster. However in essence, the concentration of power still lies in the hands of a select few. Digital surveillance and technological tools used to plug leaks are just some methods used to silence journalists. Detractors might jeer that such conspiracies are best left to Hollywood and the silver screen. However, rules governing these boundaries are substantially undefined and frequently overlooked.

Should We Hit The Panic Button?

George Orwell’s popular novel 1984 is a bleak dystopian tale where the public is consistently manipulated and monitored. That this is a possibility always hovers around the consciousness and is as such frightening because it lingers around the question of ‘what-if’. But perhaps more alarming is the fact that it could very well be happening albeit in a more subtle and diabolical way. When you are sold onto the idea that the norm is the only acceptable truth and thus begin to subscribe to the fact that this is the only way of being, aren’t we then essentially conforming to Big Brother’s principles and rules?

Albert Camus once said that ‘a free press can, of course, be good or bad, but most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad’. The erosion of freedom of the press does not only have negative connotations for the media, it means that we the people are figuratively losing our voices. We lose our inherent right to know the truth, we lose our basic freedom to have access to information and we lose our ability to hold authority figures accountable for their actions.

Yen Li Wong