The importance of freedom of the press to liberty

There’s this weird belief a free, independent press is a byproduct of democracy. Former President Barack Obama waxed poetically about the importance of democracy multiple times in his presidency, and other politicians have done the same from a state and federal level. CNN’s Chris Cillizza is the latest to write on the freedom of the press after White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders became irked by questions being raised about White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.

CBS News’ Chip Reid asked Sanders about a factual inaccuracy in White House chief of staff and retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly’s attack on Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson on Thursday. Here’s how Sanders responded:

“If you want to go after General Kelly, that is up to you. If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that is something highly inappropriate.

Just in case you don’t get what Sanders is suggesting, it’s something like this: General Kelly is a highly decorated soldier. As such, questioning things that he says is “highly inappropriate.”

That’s not how democracy works. Not at all. In fact, it’s the opposite of how democracy works.

Cillizza goes on to write a democracy is having a media “free and independent enough to question the White House chief of staff — and, yes, even the President — when they say something that is not backed up by the facts.” He also believes it’s the “linchpin of our democracy and what separates us from authoritarian governments all over the world.”

Cillizza is partially right in his assertion. A free and independent press is important to ensuring the powers that be are questioned about policies. It’s also important to make sure the powers that be, and those in the opposition, have the ability to defend or criticize said policies and provide alternatives. A free press means anyone can pretty much publish what they want, whether it’s here at Hot Air or CNN, IJR, Fox News, or Breitbart, so long as it meets the editorial guidelines of said outlets. It also means people can create their own blogs or website, and write what they want for whatever audience they may or may not have.

But that’s not a tenet of democracy, it’s a tenet of freedom and liberty. There are plenty of democracies in the world which do not have a free press, even though their Constitution guarantees the right of free speech. Russia is probably the best example with free speech written into Section 2, Article 29 of their Constitution, and their very low ranking in world press freedom indexes. Russia is technically a democracy. They have elections for the presidency and State Duma. But their media is controlled by the government, and there are hardly any privately-owned news outlets. President Vladimir Putin is an autocrat, and their country has never been seen as one which loves freedom and liberty.

India is another example of a democracy which doesn’t have a free press. Their Constitution allows free speech in Section 3, Article 19. They also have governmental elections every five years Yet, Reporters Without Borders noted prosecutors are tamping down on journalists through sedition laws. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also been accused of skirting the press by using social media, and there has been violence against journalists reported in various localities. So the democracy isn’t exactly promoting free press or freedom of speech.

Then there’s “our democracy” in the United States. The government is supposed to be prohibited from infringing on freedom of the press, based on the First Amendment. Yet, the U.S. is seeing its ranking in press freedom indexes going down, and NOT just before Donald Trump is president. Here’s part of Freedom House’s report on press freedom in 2016:

The Obama administration has come under fire for effectively limiting journalistic access to federal officials, as well as official events. The president held fewer press conferences in his first term than did his predecessors, although he has held a substantial number of meetings with small groups of usually friendly journalists. Journalists have complained of an environment in which officials are less likely to discuss policy issues with reporters than during previous administrations, noting that “minders” representing the administration often sit in during meetings involving reporters and federal officials.

Their 2017 report was also critical of the Obama administration, while Reporters Without Border wrote, “it bears repeating that [Obama] left behind a flimsy legacy for press freedom and access to information. Journalists continue to be arrested for covering various protests around the country, with several currently facing criminal charges.” This is also the same president who told Ohio State grads in 2013 to not believe “voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices.” Most of these voices were in media, whether it was at Reason, Hot Air, or Fox News. It was an attack on the media.

Then there’s the attempted prosecution of James Rosen, and the tapping of Associated Press phones at the State Department. The assault on the media in the U.S. has been going on for years. Yes, Trump deserves plenty of criticism for his comments on the press, and using them as a way to gin his most fervent supporters up into a mob which mirrors the storming of the Bastille. But it’s foolish to only blame media attacks on him, without looking at things previous administrations have done.

The notion democracies are the best place for a free press is an argument which is a bit of a misnomer. Democracies can go askew when the wrong people end up in power and start ignoring constitutional tenets. Cillizza is correct in saying a free press is essential to the U.S.. But the importance of free press is because we’re built on a basis of Natural Law in life, liberty, and property, not some other democratic theory. Democracies are great, except for when the mob takes over and puts in “leaders” who ignore the philosophical backbone of this country. A free and independent press is a byproduct of liberty, not democracy. We all need to remember this.