Posted May 3, 2015Way back when people talked about “freedom of the press,” getting and keeping that freedom was much more difficult. Of course, “press” meant just what it sounded like: a printing press. The only “mass media” – that is, way of communicating with masses of people – was using a printing press to publish writings. There was no radio or TV or internet or social media!
And printing presses weren't cheap. Not everyone could afford one, and using a press took know-how.
It was fairly easy in the 1400s and the 1500s for kings and aristocrats to control what was published. But in England in the 1600s, a struggle began against the king's control of what was published. Finally, in 1695, licensing and censorship laws were abolished.
But there were still laws against libel, and even true criticism of the government was considered libel! As a matter of fact, the legal tradition was that “the greater the truth, the greater the libel.”
Think about that. That means that, if you printed a criticism of a governmental official taking bribes, you could be brought on charges of libel. If you proved that your story was correct – the guy really WAS taking bribes – you were in even bigger trouble!
That basically meant you could never criticize the government, right?
In the American colonies in 1735, the Zenger case set the precedent that it wasn't libel if it was true. Later, the U.S. Constitution famously declared that the new nation will not allow any laws that abridge the freedom of speech or of the press.
Flash forward to now:
Not only does “the press” now mean publishing books and magazines and newspapers, it also includes radio and television, the internet and epublications, Facebook and Twitter! And it's never been easier for average people to spread their words and ideas. Anyone with access to a computer or a smart phone can do so – and many millions of people choose to do so!
Now it is incredibly difficult for anyone – presidents, popes, professors, kings, corporate executives – to control what people say, print, or know. Of course, that means that there is an incredible amount of silly, inaccurate, hateful, and harmful stuff being said and repeated and shared and spread...but there is also a ton of accurate, uplifting, and important information and ideas being communicated.
In some nations many people do not have access to the web of information. Some nations really do imprison or even kill journalists, claiming that they are spies. Some religious extremists have killed writers, filmmakers, cartoonists, and others in the media, if they dared to say, write, or draw something that the extremists disagree. These killings, of course, are meant to shut everyone else up, too, out of fear.
The United Nations deemed today as World Press Freedom Day to spread awareness of the pockets of repression in the hopes that people will work to end censorship and governmental control over ideas and information. Today was chosen because it is the anniversary of the 1991 Declaration of Windhoek, a statement of free press principles put together by African newspaper journalists.
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