Why do authoritarian rulers view free press as key rivals?
A free and independent press is a vital element in any democracy. It gives citizens the information they need to hold their leaders accountable and promote economic development. The right to press freedom is enshrined in the founding documents of the United Nations as well as in many national constitutions.
theUniversal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, recognizes the importance of freedom of expression. Article 19 states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
According to the Encyclopedia of Britannica, on December 2, 1766, the Swedish parliament passed legislation that is now recognized as the world’s first law supporting the freedom of the press and freedom of information. Narrowly, the Freedom of the Press Act abolished the Swedish government’s role as a censor of printed matter, and it allowed for the official activities of the government to be made public. More broadly, the law codified the principle—which has since become a cornerstone of democracy throughout the world—that individual citizens of a state should be able to express and disseminate information without fear of reprisal.
The notion that the press should be free could have emerged only after the press itself had become a commonplace. The invention of mechanized printing in the 15th century led to the proliferation of books, newspapers and other publications that spread ideas faster and farther than ever before. However, because of the potential for these ideas to challenge official power structures, some political and religious authorities actively suppressed publications that they deemed subversive.
An early defense of press freedom was made by the poet John Milton in his 1644 pamphletareopagitica, written in response to the British Parliament’s passage of a law requiring the government to approve all books prior to publication. “Truth and understanding,” Milton argued, “are not such wares as to be monopolized and traded in by tickets and statutes, and standards.” This sentiment appeared to win legal recognition on the other side of the Atlantic when in 1733 New York newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger, in a landmark jury trial, was acquitted of seditious libel on the grounds that the articles he printed, which were harshly critical of New York’s colonial governor, were still based on facts. Twenty-five years after the Freedom of the Press Act came into force in Sweden, the framers of the US Constitution enshrined the same principle in the document’s First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or the press. ”
While many countries have come to understand freedom of expression as a common good—indeed, it is one of the rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—state censorship and regulation of the press have not entirely disappeared. The international organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF) monitors conditions for journalists around the world and ranks of countries by their degree of media freedom. Countries that rank toward the bottom of RSF’s list include those that maintain various forms of state media and impose restrictions on independent outlets, such as China, Russia, and North Korea.
The Chinese government’s cruelty on media
China’s constitution prohibits media workers, including internet users, from publishing, writing, circulating, or otherwise posting fake news, misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda related to various subjects such as national security, terrorism, ethnic hatred, violence, and obscenity. However, most private journalists are restricted from sharing certain views and opinions with the general public.
China introduced Article 35 of the constitution of China that provides its citizens the right to observe “press freedom” in a free environment.
However, Article 51 prohibits such activities for the national interest, which limits press freedom in the country. Chinese mass media such as radio and television broadcast news fall under Article 25, which limits their ability to broadcast plays, news, and other forms of information in free journalism standards. This, according to the Regulations on the Administration of Publishing, prevents the transmission of such content that poses risks to sovereignty and public interest.
According to Reporters Without Borders, the role of the media in China is to impart state propaganda. Chinese authorities, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, are often argued to have been involved in press suppression. It is often referred to as one of the frontline-countries where freedom of mass communication and its associated people, such as journalists, persistently experience troubles. China often blocks news websites, social media platforms, and other services such as Facebook, Gmail, Google, Instagram, and Pinterest, and has limited access to the general public. The Great Firewall has blocked most foreign news websites, such as Voice of America, VOA Chinese, the BBC, The New York Times, and Bloomberg News. In 2017, Chinese authorities also removed about “300 politically sensitive articles” from the Cambridge University Press. However, this article removal was later contested online on Change.org. In 2019, some scholars and writers deleted their posts or permanently deleted their feeds after authorities asked them to do so. Some writers were warned for retweeting or liking posts.
Step-motherly behavior of authoritarian regime on freedom of press
In the realm of governance, the relationship between authoritarian rulers and a free press has long been characterized by tension and hostility. Autocratic leaders consistently perceive a free press as a significant threat to their power and control. This article aims to explore the reasons behind this perspective, shedding light on the inherent conflict between authoritarianism and a vibrant, independent media.
Authoritarian rulers rely heavily on maintaining control over the narrative, shaping public opinion, and consolidating their power. A free press challenges this control by investigating and reporting on various aspects of governance, including government actions, policies, and potential abuses of power. It exposes corruption, inequality, and human rights violations, thereby diminishing the regime’s ability to maintain a pristine public image. The dissemination of alternative viewpoints and critical analysis poses a direct challenge to the autocrat’s propaganda machinery.
Free press serves as a crucial pillar of a democratic society by acting as a check on the government’s power and ensuring accountability. Autocrats, on the other hand, often operate outside the framework of democratic principles. By suppressing or manipulating the media, they can avoid scrutiny, evade accountability, and shield themselves from public dissent. A free press challenges the authoritarian ruler’s legitimacy by providing a platform for opposition voices and exposing the discrepancies between rhetoric and reality.
Authoritarian regimes often rely on oppressive measures to maintain control, leading to human rights abuses and violations. A free press plays a vital role in shedding light on these violations, reporting on issues such as political repression, censorship, torture, and extrajudicial killings. By exposing these abuses to the world, journalists pose a threat to the autocrat’s ability to act with impunity. Such revelations can result in international condemnation, economic sanctions, and pressure for reforms, undermining the ruler’s grip on power.
Authoritarian rulers thrive on controlling the flow of information and manipulating public perception. A free press disrupts this dynamic by providing independent information and promoting public awareness. Through investigative journalism, news outlets can uncover hidden truths, hold those in power accountable, and empower citizens with knowledge. This heightened awareness fosters civic engagement, encourages critical thinking, and strengthens civil society—elements that authoritarian regimes perceive as a potential catalyst for social unrest and resistance.
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Authoritarian rulers often exhibit traits of narcissism and an intense desire for personal glorification. A free press challenges their carefully constructed image and undermines the adoration they seek. Criticism and negative coverage erode their public persona, potentially exposing their weaknesses, incompetence, or wrongdoing. Consequently, autocrats perceive the media as a personal adversary that threatens their inflated egos and aspirations for unchecked authority.
The strained relationship between authoritarian rulers and a free press arises from the inherent conflict between autocratic governance and the principles that underpin a vibrant, independent media. The control, propaganda, accountability, exposure of human rights abuses, independent information, and threat to personal image all contribute to the autocrats’ perception of the media as a key rival. As defenders of democracy and guardians of public interest, a free press plays a vital role in challenging authoritarianism, fostering transparency, and promoting accountability.
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