This year’s edition of Freedom of the Press documents a surge in threats to independent journalism, from governments that use legal means to control information, armed groups that make basic reporting a potentially life-threatening activity, and media owners who manipulate news coverage to serve personal or partisan interests.
At the same time, there is renewed global interest in the values of free expression following a spate of horrific violence against journalists, notably the IS murders of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and most recently Japanese reporter Kenji Goto, as well as the January 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Although the public seems more attuned to the dangers faced by journalists on a daily basis, it is not yet clear what impact these killings will have on the struggle for press freedom, or whether the outpouring of support for free expression will be sustained.
Some early signs are troubling. In France, the government is considering new legislation to crack down on hate speech online—a commendable impulse at first glance, but one that poses a potential threat to free expression and offers no guarantee of reducing the tensions that have led to violence. Indeed, while the worst assaults on global access to news and information come from authoritarian states, militant groups, and organized crime, democratic governments risk adding to the problem with overzealous responses to hate speech and propaganda.
Such responses are misguided. Censorship is ineffective and often counterproductive as an antidote to extremism, and its limited utility cannot justify the infringement of a fundamental democratic value like freedom of expression.
Unfettered access to information—about politics, religion, corruption, and the countless other potentially sensitive topics that have a direct impact on people’s lives—is a central pillar of any free society because it enables individuals to evaluate such questions for themselves, rather than through a filter devised by those in power. It allows citizens to demand accountability from their own governments, to debunk propaganda and learn the ugly truth about extremist movements, and to advocate for social change and political reform as they see fit. Restrictions on expression may be a politically expedient way to react to public discontent and insecurity, but a long-term solution demands open debate, the complete exposure and analysis of odious views, the development of persuasive counterarguments, and the implementation of policies to address underlying grievances and social ills.
The wide and growing range of threats to media freedom around the globe presents a stark challenge to democratic values. Responding to this challenge requires a collective acknowledgement that all infringements on media freedom—both the brutally violent and the seemingly mundane or rational—limit the marketplace of ideas that lies at the core of a free and democratic society.