Press Freedom Day 2019: Why we need journalists now more than ever

In places where there is no free press, corruption and tyranny are free to flourish

Susan Ramsay |

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Good journalism is necessary for a democratic society.

Anywhere in the world where people have power, there is corruption. Prosperous, democratic nations rely on a free press to function. A free press informs the nation’s citizens about the facts they need to decide on civic and political affairs.

But a free press does not ensure prosperity, and it is difficult to have it without democracy.

Where there is no free press, corruption flourishes, often unchecked. With a free media, journalists can bring facts to the public to allow them to understand the issues, and take whatever action they can to make things right.

Behind closed doors there are horrific cases of abuse on an industrial scale. This abuse doesn’t go away on its own. It needs to have a light shone on it, so that people can see what it is. Hopefully they will then do the right thing and fix matters.

Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered for criticising the government.
Photo: AFP

Gaining factual information is important to people financially, too. If someone is thinking of investing a lot of money in a company, they want to know that their money is safe and that the company is in good hands. It might be that a journalist tells them about how good or bad the company manager is. They might find out from reading the news that the company is involved in slave labour, has a bad safety record, or is responsible for pollution.

Transparency – being able to see clearly – is important in systems of democracy. It might be more important in systems of tyranny, but tyrants don’t allow free media.

Information is key to success in today’s world. That information needs to be trusted because it not only forms our opinions of world affairs but leads us to make choices that affect each other – for example, without all the stories about how terrible plastic is, we would not be looking for a better alternative, and could be blithely destroying our world.

When conflict breaks out, journalists become the eyes of the world. Hopefully in the glare of the media spotlight, potential war criminals will be deterred from carrying out their atrocities. But if they are not deterred, their crimes are recorded so that later they can be brought to justice.

Former vice-chairman of the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Hong Kong could not get his work visa renewed.
Photo: AP

Journalists give voice to the powerless. It was the media that alerted the world to the Rohingya crisis, where Muslims in Myanmar faced severe brutality from the government and were forced to flee their homes. While the issue is far from resolved, at least people can try to do something to stop it.

All over the world, journalists are superheroes, protecting the public from bad governments, bad people and bad businesses.

A free media is the enemy of a state that has secrets it doesn’t want people to find out. It’s also the enemy of powerful people who are up to no good. Governments, wealthy corporations, and assorted bad people will do all they can to stop the media reporting freely and fairly. This is called “censorship” and there are different ways it can happen.

Governments with dark secrets to hide

Few countries admit that their media is censored, even the media themselves. But not all media are able to be honest about the degree to which they are being censored. Governments who are not being honest with their people tell the public that the media needs to be censored to maintain harmony and order. They scare people into thinking that discussions and ideas are harmful and dangerous, so, they say, it’s best not to speak about them. Members of the public become afraid of confrontation over important issues and so many people are happy to place all their trust in the nation’s leaders.

In fact, what the government is doing is protecting themselves, not the public. They have dark secrets to hide that they know will anger the public, and they hope to get away with their crimes for as long as possible. A free press scares them.

Mainland journalist Liang Xiangyi went viral when she rolled her eyes at another reporter who was pandering to Chinese government officials.
Photo: CCTV

Here is how censorship works:


A government can use the law to prevent journalists from doing their jobs. A recent example of this happened right here in Hong Kong, with a foreign correspondent named Victor Mallet. He hosted a talk about Hong Kong independence, which the government opposed, and later his application for the renewal of his work visa was rejected.


When someone intimidates someone else, they make them feel afraid. In many countries journalists are jailed, tortured, or killed. Their health is threatened, their family become possible targets, and they have to make literal life-and-death decisions about which is more important – their country or their family.


Many countries say they have a free press, but they really don’t. The media and the government reach an understanding of unspoken censorship. Journalists are fully aware that if they say something that causes their news organisation too much trouble with the government, they might lose their jobs. It takes brave journalists to do this and many have found themselves out of work.

Financial censorship

Governments don’t have to directly tell news organisations not to publish stories. They can encourage advertisers not to spend their dollars with that particular media, and starve them financially. Journalists, like other people, enjoy earning a living, getting married, having kids, and so forth. They cannot work for free. So by cutting advertising revenue, a government can silence dissenting voices.

Edited by Pete Spurrier

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