Freedom of press
Freedom of Expression and Democracy

Press

© Engin Akyur via Pixabay

The intimate relationship between press freedom and democracy is indisputable. Countries that achieve balanced social development and democratic stability are those that respect essential human rights such as speech and press freedoms. Most times, these concepts appear as synonyms, on occasions they can exist independently, but normally they are linked and complement each other.

Freedom of speech is born out of autonomy of thought and conscience, out of every person’s possibility to assume their own ideas, share them, and use them to find development for themselves, their families, and their society.  It bears a dual nature: the first part is individual and allows all human beings to seek, receive and share information of any kind by any means; the second one is social and refers to the population’s right to access information, especially if it is of public interest.

Both parts have grown exponentially during the past couple of decades due to the access to digital platforms. At the same time, the availability of public information has been widened, which constitutes an element that is fundamental to social auditing, accountability, the fight against corruption, transparency in the use of public resources, and many other elements essential to efficient governance that pushes for the common good and drives egalitarian human development.  

We can find some valuable references to the subject in international legislation. Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights defines these concepts with absolute precision: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and expression. This right includes freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing, in print, in the form of art, or through any other medium of one's choice.’ That same convention prohibits previous or indirect censorship (mechanisms such as the abuse of official control, supply of paper for print media, and radio frequencies).

Moreover, Article 1 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression says: ‘Freedom of expression in all its forms and manifestations is a fundamental and inalienable right of all individuals. Additionally, it is an indispensable requirement for the very existence of a democratic society.’ At the same time, its preamble contains the following thoughts: ‘that the consolidation and development of democracy depend upon the existence of freedom of expression; that any obstacle to the free discussion of ideas and opinions limits freedom of expression and the effective development of a democratic process; and that guaranteeing the right to access to information held by the State will ensure greater transparency and accountability of governmental activities and the strengthening of democratic institutions.’

These legislations affirm that the bond between democracy and freedom of speech is categorical. Therefore, it is unsurprising to see how the former is weakened in countries where press freedom or access to public information is diminished. It is enough to look at the American Continent where examples of this causal nexus abound.

There are extreme cases like Cuba, where press freedom has not existed for a long time. The meagre spreading of information and opinions that diverge from the official public ones is accomplished only through the ingenuity and rebelliousness of citizens who use technology to bypass official censorship. The result is a nation that lost democracy and lives under a dictatorship.

In Venezuela, the loss of press freedom has weakened democratic processes. That country suffered a gradual decay that began with the economic suffocation of communication outlets through tax regulations or lawsuits and, eventually, the interruption of radio and television frequencies, among other arbitrary measures. The result has caused such devastation that millions of Venezuelans have been forced out of their country in search of freedom and worthy life.

The current situation of Nicaragua is another instance that reflects these topics. There, as independent media sources were eliminated, the government became an authoritarian entity that criminalizes dissent and openly violates every universally accepted principle of speech and press freedoms.

Honduras, particularly during the period between 2010 and 2013, had one of the darkest periods for journalism with the enforcement of a brutal form of censorship that resulted in the murder of dozens of journalists and communicators, as well as violent attacks on media establishments, most of which were left unpunished. This resulted in more than a decade of democratic undermining, institutional weakening, and fraudulent and unconstitutional reelection. The human and economic consequences of this democratic loss and the frailty of the journalistic practice have been disastrous, they turned Honduras into one of the countries with more economic inequality in the world.

Another of the most recent examples is at play in El Salvador where the democratic undermining seems to walk hand in hand with the threats, attacks, and legislative reforms aimed to limit the journalistic endeavours through laws that criminalize the spread of information. This, on top of the constant verbal assaults on news outlets by government officials, and the recent reveal that several journalists were subjects of privacy invasion through programs such as Pegasus, which has been used in other countries with the same objective. It is a terrible violation and a dreadful form of vulnerability for sources.

Some attacks have grown and made their way into countries that, for a long time, were examples of democracy, such as the United States of America. During the last presidential election, the country suffered from serious  on their democratic process, in large part due to the fabrication of misleading information directly within the government and the stigmatization of dissenting news outlets, going as far as to qualify them as ‘enemies of the people’.

A meaningful impact of the absence of press freedom in democratic processes has to do with corruption. As we have witnessed during the pandemic, the lack of access to public interest information has an insidious effect on countries’ capabilities of addressing emergencies of such magnitude. This weakens nations’ abilities to face the economic consequences of the crisis and diminishes the probability of citizens having access or interest in participating in issues of national interest.

It also reduces citizenship trust in democratic institutions and drives them away from the possibility of people wanting to engage actively in their consolidation. This is reflected in public opinion polls that confirm the decrease of public trust in the democracy of the region, leaving space for autocratic or dictatorial alternatives.

These historical precedents put into focus the transcendence of defending and promoting human rights in the region, especially those linked to freedom of speech and press. These rights will always be under threat, and it is on all of us to protect them and fortify them permanently. Not defending press freedom increases the risk of democratic undermining, the danger of tyrannic regimes, and more inequality in our societies. 

Written by Rodolfo Dumas, Inter American Press Asociation