Tech & Rights

Governments Do What's Best for Us When They're Being Watched By a Free Press

Our representatives are meant to act in our best interests. When politicians know that they have to face independent journalists asking them to explain their decisions, they're more likely to make choices that put our well-being first.

by Eva Simon
(Image: UN)

One of the ways we ensure that our politicians do what’s best for us, is by getting them to talk to us regularly. We want to know what choices politicians are making to keep us healthy, and how they decided that those choices were the best ones. If they make a mistake, we want to know why and what they'll do to stop it happening again. And we want them to let us know what we should be doing to slow the spread of the virus and to keep our loved ones safe.

Staying informed

This is why a free press is so important. When the press is free to do its job and report independently it can provide us with reliable information. During the pandemic, one of its roles is give the public information from our governments and health services so that everybody knows the rules of quarantine or how to get tested.

Getting our questions answered

But freedom of the press is not only about passing on information from government to the public. It is also the job of journalists to make ministers explain their choices, and to inform us about the different options available. For example, at press conferences held by our governments, the press represents us by asking questions we want answered and by forcing politicians to tell us the truth. This is especially important in times like these when our leaders are making many decisions that affect our wellbeing.

These things are so important that we have made them into the human right to freedom of expression and information. This right is essential for our democracies to work properly because it allows the public to know how our leaders are using the powers that we have loaned them.

Attacks on the press

In some EU countries, governments are making the job of the press very difficult. Here are two examples. First, by cancelling or limiting what journalists can ask at press conferences. For example, when the Hungarian government holds a press conference, it requires journalists to send all their questions before the press conference starts. So when politicians are lying, it's impossible for journalists to ask extra questions that get to the truth. The Slovenian and Czech governments have stopped their press conferences altogether during the pandemic.

These governments say that they have put these limitations on the press because it's not safe to have press conferences during the pandemic. But this is just an excuse - it is still perfectly possible for journalists to question ministers, even if they are not in the same room. All of us know this, because we all have video conversations over the internet. These governments just don't want their citizens to be able to check whether they are doing a good job.

The second way that governments are making it difficult for the press to do their job is by telling the public that we should not trust journalists. In some countries, such as Hungary or the Czech Republic, the USA, or Brazil, leading politicians have attacked independent and reliable news channels, calling them "fake news". This is because these governments do not like being criticised by the press.

This is a problem, because it makes people stop trusting reliable media. It also makes it less likely that people will read or watch reliable news. And we know that a free and independent press is important to make sure people get information they need about how to stay safe and that they know about the choices governments are making.

How to deal with false or misleading information

Of course, there are some news organisations that try to spread false and misleading information. This is often called 'misinformation'. And it is dangerous. Information about false cures can put people in danger. Bogus conspiracy theories saying that a particular country is responsible for the virus can make people turn on each other in their communities, when we need to work together.

In Hungary, a new law allows the government to imprison journalists for spreading misinformation. This is not the right answer. First, because trying to censor false information doesn't actually stop it from spreading. People share information so quickly over social media like twitter and facebook that it's hard to stop. Second, because it allows a government to imprison journalists just for criticising them. In Hungary there are only a few independent news organisations left, and the government often tries to discredit them by saying their reports are false. It is obvious that the new law is intended to stop independent journalists reporting on mistakes the government is making.

The best way to stop the public being misled by misinformation is for the government to support a free and independent press. This way the public will always know where to turn for reliable information. A government can support the media in different ways. First, it can answer journalists' questions and stop attacking independent news companies. Second, it should give the public broadcaster the resources it needs to do its job of reporting reliable news and not try to influence what journalists say.

A free press keeps us healthy

We can use our right to a free press to make sure our government is doing the best for us. Journalists keep us informed with the latest medical advice. They also explain the different options governments have available, and they force politicians to explain the choices they make. This makes it more likely that our representatives will make the best choices for all of us.

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