Democracy & Justice

What Is Free Press, And How Does It Work? What Is Its Role In A Democracy?

What does free press mean, how does it work, and what is its role in a modern democracy? We break down its importance, and why it’s under threat – even in the EU.

by Jonathan Day
Knowledge is power.

What we read, hear and share everyday, whether reading through the daily newspaper in the morning or having a conversation with our friends, forms a central part of our democracy. Getting good information about the society we live in, and then having free and open discussions about how things are and how they should change, is the sort of dialogue that nurtures a strong democracy. And it all depends on having a free press.

What is free press?

When we say a country has a free press, we mean that its news outlets and other publications, even individual citizens, have the right to communicate information without influence or fear of retribution from the state or other powerful entities or individuals. We often use the term “free press” and “independent journalism,” a subject we previously explored, more or less interchangeably.

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In modern history, a shared understanding of the principle of a free press was outlined by the United Nations in 1948. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights codifies it along with the right free speech:

“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 regardless of frontiers.”

Today, most democracies have some protection for a free press, whether this protection comes from a constitution or individual law. In Europe, a free press is protected under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and under Article 11 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

What is the purpose of a free press?

The purpose of a free press is to ensure that the people are free to receive and impart information that is not manipulated or serving a particular person, entity or interest. Its duty, in fact, is often to investigate people of power, and especially the government, to ask the hard questions and to attempt to uncover what’s really happening, regardless of the political fallout.

Why is freedom of the press so important?

Simply put, you can’t have much of a democracy without a free press. That’s because democracy’s strength rests in the hands of the people, meaning they have to be knowledgeable and informed in order to make the right decisions when they go to vote. And then they have to have a fair picture of what happens next — how the elected politicians or other decisions taken with the ballot worked out.

A free press aids in every step of this process. It delivers information to voters before they vote; it fosters dialogue and debate to enrich understanding of this information; and then it reports back to citizens about what their government is doing and if the things they wanted to happen are actually happening. In democracy, citizens delegate decision-making power to their elected officials, and a free press is one way to check on them.

What is (or should be) the role of a free press in a democracy?

A free press is a vital organ of a democratic society. In order for us to make informed choices when we pick our representatives or vote on certain issues, we need to know what’s actually going on. A free press can give us the straight story on issues, policies and events because it’s not under the influence of the government or the prime minister’s golf buddies.

Another function of a free press is that of a watchdog. As it’s not beholden to the government or other entity, or working in fear of them, a free press can give unvarnished reporting on politicians and others. Corruption, patronage, embezzlement, a quite regrettable weekend in Ibiza – it’s often the case that we learn of misdeeds by our representatives or other authorities only thanks to a society that protects freedom of the press.

And, of course, we want to discuss all this. A free press helps us do that. It creates more opportunities for us to hear other viewpoints or new information, and gives each of us the chance to impart our own opinions and understandings to others. The more we discuss things, the better informed we become and the better able we are to make the best decisions about our future.

Are there legal limits of free press around the world?

Even in countries with a strong tradition of free press and a saturated, diverse media market, there are limits to what a journalist or newspaper or TV anchor can report. For example, journalists aren’t free to report on issues that might compromise national security or reveal state secrets.

But perhaps a better way to look at this is by assessing undue limits placed on free press. It’s restricted in many countries – North Korea has no free press whatsoever, and doesn’t try all that hard to pretend otherwise; Hungary pretends to have free press and is even legally bound to protect it, but now it has only a handful of independent media outlets.

As noted, EU law compels EU member states to protect freedom of the press. And very many of them do, supporting rich and robust media environments that stand as examples for so many other countries around the world. But Hungary is not alone among those EU members that flout this basic right.

In Poland, a state-run oil company bought up one of the largest media groups in the country, Polska Press, last year. With an audience of some 17 million, of a total Polish population of some 38 million, the state now has the ability to heavily control the news that nearly half the country consumes. And a priest who is very close with the government owns one of the other leading media companies, extending the government’s reach further still.

In the Czech Republic, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš owns a huge swathe of the country’s media outlets. A 2015 report by Foreign Policy said he uses these to “regularly feature sympathetic coverage” of himself – and “criticism of his opponents.” In Slovenia, the government is actively weakening the free press. A recent report found that Slovenia “has seen press freedom deteriorate ever since [Prime Minister Janez] Jansa returned to power in March 2020.”

But the deterioration of the free press is becoming a global phenomenon. The 2021 Reporters Without Borders report on world press freedom finds a worsening state of free press almost everywhere. Disturbingly, it appears that this drop is at least in part related to the COVID-19 pandemic, as nearly 75% of countries to some degree blocked free media during the pandemic.

Why is free pass declining?

Free press is under threat or declining precisely because it is so important to democracy. Authoritarian governments want to retain power above all else. That they are so often incredibly corrupt, if not also incompetent, would probably threaten their grip on power, assuming the citizens are given the truth. But when there is no free press, when the stream of information is controlled by the government or oligarchs, the people are given a distorted picture of what’s happening.

It’s also in decline because the media landscape has changed. Facebook, Google and other Big Tech companies have carved out such a position of market dominance that it is very hard for smaller companies, for independent news outlets or other publications, to compete. These platforms aggregate news and share it with their users, with little to no revenue flowing back to the source that actually wrote the news. This regime must change if we are to protect the plurality and diversity of our media landscape and maintain a truly free press.

What can we do to increase free press?

If we are fortunate enough to live in a country with a free press, we should support it. Supporting free media can be done through donations, by participating in debates, reading newspapers, and teaching kids and the elderly how to use online media safely and without getting lost in the flow of disinformation. It also means we support the right to free speech, which goes hand in hand with having a free press. And we can vote for politicians that support these things as well, in the hope that they can legislate to protect the free press, for instance by regulating the advertising industry or digital media so as to give small, independent outlets a chance to compete with Big Tech.

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