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Press freedom: A pillar of every democracy

Herbsttreffen der Medienfrauen 2017 Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl
December 28, 2018

Restricted press freedom is not just a problem in countries led by autocrats. That freedom is also under threat in ever more democracies, thus endangering their very core, says DW Editor-in-Chief Ines Pohl.

A selection of various German newspapers
Image: imago/Future Image

The right to freedom of expression is not a luxury good. Unlimited freedom of the press is not something democracies can do without, but rather something they must defend with all their power. Freedom of the press is one of the pillars of the democratic form of government, one that guarantees the greatest possible freedom to every individual and the greatest protection to minorities. It is only possible to uncover — and in the best case hinder — corruption and injustice when everyone has the right to freely express opinion, to critically question the goings-on of politics and business, to investigate unobstructed and to publish the results of one's research.

Read more: More journalists killed globally in 2018, says Reporters Without Borders

Hitler's calculus

Of course there is nothing new about that observation. Of all people, we Germans learned from the Nazi era just how important independent reporting is. It was no coincidence that Adolf Hitler's reign of terror began with the end of press freedom.

But what does that mean today? Foremost, that we can never stop reporting about the oppression of journalists, that we can never stop demanding our incarcerated colleagues be released, and that we oblige those in power to stop their efforts to curtail freedom of expression.

And it means we must demand our own government and opposition parties act with purpose to do just that — diplomatically, but also with precise action when necessary.

The EU must reflect upon how it intends to deal with member states that successively limit press freedom, passing laws to that end while at the same time firing critical judges and silencing critics. It must be made unmistakably clear at accession talks for aspiring member states that press freedom is not negotiable, and that without it there is no possibility of membership. Lax attitudes toward new member states in this regard over the past few years have come to haunt the EU.

Read more: After Jan Kuciak, killing journalists now 'within realm of possibility'

DW Editor-in-Chief Ines Pohl
DW Editor-in-Chief Ines PohlImage: DW/P. Böll

The trends that we are witnessing within Europe are anything but banal. And things are coming to a head in countries like Poland, Hungary and Romania.

The situation for bloggers and citizen journalists — who are in many places one of the few sources of independent information — has deteriorated to the point of being life-threatening. This year alone, some 13 such people were killed worldwide, almost twice as many as in 2017.

Read more: How oligarchs captured Central Europe's media

Trump attacks the press

But direct violence against journalists is not the only threat. Politicians like Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin know where journalism is most vulnerable: With its most valuable commodity, its credibility. When the US president attacks the media as "fake news," it is about much more than simply distracting from his own most recent lies. It is a long-term strategy designed to undermine the credibility of his most dangerous critics, and thus to weaken those who are in the process of uncovering his machinations and their roots.

That also means journalists and media companies must rise to the challenge and conduct their research even more carefully, question their own colleagues even more critically and admit to mistakes without reserve. For every intentional misconduct, every unfounded escalation and every one-sided representation simply plays into the hands of those intent on keeping citizens from informing themselves in order to form their own opinions — the prerequisite that ensures elections are truly democratic.

Herbsttreffen der Medienfrauen 2017 Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl Bureau head of DW's Washington Studio@inespohl
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