Everyone is in favor of freedom of the press, but there is disagreement about what it is, and even in a globalized world, it remains surprisingly rare. Since the collapse of communism that ended the cold war, the problem is less about the general definition and more about how it can be established and sustained in countries that are new to Western market-based democracy. By the definition we will use here, press freedom remains an elusive goal as well in many of the countries in the old Third World that continue the struggle to develop stable political and economic institutions. Press freedom is closely related to technical innovations. The current communication revolution that has produced the global communication system of the 21st century also influences press freedom, usually for the better, but not always. In this chapter, we will consider the history of press freedom and several alternative definitions, then compare different interpretations within the now-dominant Western concept and, finally, examine some of the issues that have arisen as a product of globalization.
Even among the Western democracies, there is no agreement about the fine points of press freedom. And to the American observer, our fellow democrats accept restrictions on free expression that are both surprising and disconcerting. However, a reasonably general definition common to market-based media systems (that is, Western democracies) might go something like this: Freedom of the press is the right to speak, broadcast, or publish without prior restraint by or permission of the government, but with limited legal accountability after publication for violations of law. It may also encompass legal guarantees of (1) reasonable access to information about government, businesses, and people; (2) a right of reply or correction; (3) a limited right of access to the media; and (4) some special protections for journalists. The use of words such as "limited," "reasonable," and "some" is a reminder of the differences within even the Western democracies. In all countries, press freedom is balanced against other social values, such as the citizen's right to privacy and justice and the nation's security. If press freedom is defined simply as freedom from government control, the United States has the freest system in the world, but even there, the right is not absolute. It stops at the law. In the name of press freedom, you cannot break a law, criminal or civil. Lawyers and journalists argue endlessly about where the fine line between free press and permissible restriction is -- or should be -- but most agree that it exists. The First Amendment does not allow you to destroy a person's reputation, sell pornography, or give away the nation's defense secrets. Probably the key element of our definition is that the government cannot act in advance to stop you from saying, printing, or broadcasting, but can hold you accountable afterwards. Outside the United States, the first principle of absence of prior restraint or censorship gets less attention, while the ancillary aspects get more. Most democratic governments can, in fact, prevent publication, and some do so routinely. It is done in the name of national security, protection of privacy, or maintenance of social order. The European Union – by any definition a democratic organization with a strong commitment to press freedom – recognizes a right of the “dignity” of the individual that can be used to rein in the worst excesses of intrusive European tabloid journalism. But these same governments also frequently protect reporters from testifying in court or identifying sources. A few countries, notably in Scandinavia, guarantee reporters unusual access to government offices and documents. In the U.S. tradition, rights belong to individuals, and distinctions are rarely made between journalists and the rest of us. In Europe, legal recognition as a journalist...