The right to freedom of information, especially the right to access information held by public sector authorities, has elicited a significant amount of attention lately. Free and independent media provides information to the public, enabling people to make informed choices, ensure leaders are accountable, and generate a diversity of opinions that are free from government influence. This is premised on the fact knowledge and information are influential tools.
In addition, an independent press includes various opinions and voices. At the same time, journalists’ ability to report freely on public interest issues is a key indicator of democracy. For instance, societies that respect the freedom of the media ensure that citizens are informed of their leaders’ failures or successes, convey the needs and desires of the people, and offer a platform for a free exchange of ideas and information. This means that the freedom of information is a major component of accountable and transparent government. It plays a leading role in helping citizens to see the happenings in government and exposing mismanagement and corruption.
This paper aims to delve into the essential interplay between freedom of information and the freedom of the media and press. It examines how these freedoms collectively contribute to safeguarding rights and freedoms, promoting transparency, accountability, and democratic values.
Understanding Freedom of Information and its Significance
Importance of freedom of information in promoting transparency and accountability
Freedom of information laws empower people and organizations to access government-held information. Ideally, the right to access information is a critical element of a democratic society, allowing citizens to ensure that their elected representatives are accountable for their decisions and how they spend public money. Thus, Freedom of Information laws allow the public to access information held by public authorities. This is because such laws compel public authorities to publish certain information regarding their activities and organizations and individuals have a right to request the information.
Today, 129 countries have established freedom of information laws or access to information laws and more than 50 constitutions globally acknowledge this as a right. This is also supported by the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) which recommends the need for specific mechanisms for ensuring respect for access to information and transparency.
These laws recognize that openness and transparency are crucial to a modern state’s political health. Since public authorities spend money collected from taxpayers and make critical decisions that can substantially impact the lives of many people, access to information enables the public to make public authorities accountable for their actions.
Freedom of information laws further promote public debate for better decision-making and productivity. As unnecessary secrecy within a government results in defective decision-making.
In addition, access to official information granted by information laws can enhance public trust and confidence since public sector and government bodies can be seen as being transparent and open. Access to information is also an important tool in fighting against corruption since it enhances democratic transparency and accountability, identifying and unearthing corrupt practices and ensuring that citizens take part in developing anti-corruption laws and policies.
Capuno and Garcia (2010) revealed that information regarding local government performance can spur civic participation. In turn, heightened civic participation can lead to better welfare and service delivery by ensuring that local leaders are accountable for their performance.
Thus, this implies that there is a need for more policies geared towards promoting greater transparency within governance in order to deepen accountability.
Various examples demonstrate how the freedom of information has led to uncovering corruption, exposing wrongdoing, and ensuring public trust. These include;
- Ifeoma Ozoma: She exposed the systemic racism and sexism at Pinterest to the state of California. Her ability to use the freedom of information enabled her to find legal counsel, file a complaint with the state government, collaborate with the media, and secure personal information. Her exposure of the wrongdoing also significantly contributed to the Silenced No More Act; a bill she pushed to safeguard workers who speak out about discrimination and harassment.
- Bradley Birkenfeld: He was the first international banker who exposed the secret Swiss bank accounts, leading to a significant change in the industry. His revelations led to unprecedented recoveries for taxpayers in the US, with more than $780 million dollars in penalties and civil fines paid by Union Bank of Switzerland. Due to his whistleblowing, these secret accounts are not available for corrupt US taxpayers to hide their earnings, thus forcing the Swiss government to change its treaty with the US.
Role of freedom of information in facilitating access to information for the media and press
Freedom of information laws have been critical for enabling media organizations and journalists to obtain important information necessary for reporting. Access to information enhances government transparency, which can enable the media to participate meaningfully in decision-making and to hold government actors accountable for the decisions they make.
Laws that guarantee the right to information enable media organizations to report on corruption or fraud since barriers that would have deterred them from accessing such information are eliminated. It is a crucial tool for journalists as it has enabled them to access the right sources that can provide accurate information
Access to information supports in-depth reporting and investigative journalism in diverse ways. Part of investigative journalism’s importance is to expose corruption and wrongdoing. As such, its role is to disclose the truth, reveal facts that many hide, and re-establish fairness.
Furthermore, it acts as a check and balance against power-hungry governments and corporations, providing truth regarding a government’s activities in a more comprehensive and detailed way than normal journalism does.
Since Fressoz & Roire v. France, the European Court of Human Rights has reiterated that journalists need not be sanctioned or prosecuted due to breach of confidentiality or use of documents obtained illegally, especially when the disclosure of confidential information relates to journalistic reporting on a public interest issue and the reporting has been done in accordance with journalistic ethics’ standards. Thus, access to information plays a critical role in supporting in-depth reporting.
The freedom of information positively impacts press freedom and the media’s ability to provide accurate and comprehensive news coverage. Notably, free and independent media indicate a society’s democratic maturity.
The right to information is intrinsically connected to the citizens’ right to know, which lays the foundation for making sound decisions. The right of everyone to express themselves, including the freedom of the media to hold opinions and receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority means that the media’s pluralism and freedom are respected.
The freedom of information ensures that the media provides accurate and reliable information to the public. This helps to prevent panic and foster people’s understanding of and cooperation with appropriate restrictions. Accurate coverage by the media can enable activists, people, and other professionals to criticize the authorities for wrongdoings. Thus, access to information is an important tenet for media freedom and the ability to offer comprehensive accurate, and detailed coverage.
Freedom of Information and its Impact on the Freedom of the Media and Press
Enhancing investigative journalism and the ability to report on important issues
Access to information through freedom of information enables journalists to conduct thorough investigations and uncover crucial stories. For decades, many journalists have used investigative reporting to publish stories on crime, human rights abuses, social justice issues, and political corruption.
Investigative journalism often puts the spotlight on abuses of power by finding stories flying under the radar and sharing them to benefit the public. Such reporters usually concentrate on specific issues that demand public accountability in order to create in-depth news stories of articles from historical media, satellite imagery, and interviews.
There are various examples of investigative journalism that have had a significant impact on society and governance, one of them is the Watergate Scandal.
Following the 1972 Watergate break-in, two investigative reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward began connecting the pieces between the Watergate burglars. At first, their stories got little traction as the White House stone-walled. However, evidence kept piling up, and the team’s reporting helped to unravel a massive criminal conspiracy, filled with political tricks, illegal spying, obstruction of justice, and laundered money.
The journalists wrote that Nixon had turned the White House into a criminal enterprise. Combining inside sources, public records, good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, and Woodward’s super-secret source Mark Felt, a top FBI official, the team continued their reporting even after the reelection of Nixon, making the scandal a national sensation. As a result, Richard Nixon became the first and only American president to resign.
The freedom of information empowers journalists to delve deeper into complex issues and provide in-depth reporting to the public. More specifically, freedom of information enables journalists to spend a long period following up on leads and interviewing sources to write their articles. While some of the information might be in the public record, it needs attention to contextualize it. In addition, journalists benefit from this freedom since they can scrutinize influential individuals, uncover secret scandals, and compel leaders to resign, as explained in the Watergate Scandal above.
Countering censorship and ensuring media independence
Freedom of information protects against censorship and acts geared towards controlling or manipulating the media. In addition, it enables people and the media to speak, publish, view, and read without any form of censorship.
The right to publish and speak protects people and society from censorship and attempts to suppress information and ideas. On censorship, freedom of information prohibits government censorship of newspapers, magazines, and materials on the internet.
The freedom of information deters public institutions from compromising people’s and the media’s freedoms through frameworks that define critical responsibilities and rights regarding freedom of belief and free expression.
An independent media that can freely access information to report objectively is important for diverse reasons. These include the promotion of democracy, free flow of information without censorship, sharing of ideas, and exposure of corruption and wrongdoing.
Independent media means that no one should influence and control news coverage. This also means that the media can freely report objectively since there is no pressure for them to report otherwise. In addition, independent media provide the information and news that people require to have a say in governance. For instance, free and independent media hold authorities to account, expose corruption, and offer a platform for debate.
Fostering public trust through access to reliable information
Access to reliable information builds public confidence in the role of the media as a credible source of news. Ideally, access to reliable information sources acts as the main antidote to disinformation, thus building public confidence in the credibility of the media as a news source. Through the media’s gatekeeping role, citizens can obtain relevant information about what is happening in government policy to form meaningful preferences and hold politicians accountable.
There is a nexus between freedom of information, media credibility, and public perception of the media’s role in democratic societies. The media plays a critical role in creating and developing a democratic culture within any country.
The media provides people with information that influences their attitudes, opinions, and the making of political decisions. Thus, the media should be pluralistic, independent, and free, while at the same time voluntarily assuming social accountability. However, this can only come to fruition when there is freedom of information and media that adheres to the ethics of journalism.
In addition, the role of the media in a democratic society is to inform the public on the happenings by clarifying complex issues, especially in a period when information is an influential aspect of economic advancement.
Empowering journalists to serve as watchdogs and hold power accountable
Freedom of information enables journalists to act as watchdogs by accessing information that holds those in power accountable in diverse ways. More specifically, investigative journalism embodies journalism’s watchdog role, hence playing a pertinent role in democratic governance, particularly by investigating government actions, monitoring public expenditure, and exposing corruption or wrongdoing.
This highlights the role of the media in democracies, particularly in bridging the gap between governments and citizens as depicted in their social accountability role. The main conditions necessary for watchdog reporting are journalistic assertiveness and autonomy.
Autonomy refers to the institutional and organizational independence allowing journalists to scrutinize public bodies, public officials, or business players. In contrast, journalistic assertiveness refers to the journalists’ ability to investigate and illuminate information that would otherwise would remain unearthed or undisclosed.
There are various examples of instances where freedom of information has empowered journalists to shed light on issues that otherwise would have remained hidden, including;
- Child rape in Syria: Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) explored the issue of child rape in refugee camps of Syria. The investigation’s second part highlighted the legal loopholes that aid perpetrators to escape justice. For example, it highlighted that the Syrian law defines rape as an act orchestrated by a man to a female only, permitting scant recourse for assaults against male children.
- Pandora Papers: Coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the Pandora Papers leak saw more than 600 journalists globally collaborate to investigate the offshore secrets of wealthy elites from at least 200 countries and territories. Various organizations from the Arab world contribute to this effort. The leak exposed the rampant corruption and tax havens used by influential personalities globally.
Freedom of Information, Media Pluralism, and Democratic Societies
The role of freedom of information in fostering media pluralism
Freedom of information leads to the availability of alternative news and opinions. The right to information contributes to a pluralistic media environment that allows for divergent ideological and political views, thus enabling better representation of diverse social and cultural groups.
Pluralism also ensures competition in the media environment and for citizens, this implies more access to various entertainment content and information as well as more opportunities to make views known.
Ensuring diverse perspectives and viewpoints in the media landscape
It is important to represent various social, cultural, and ideological viewpoints in the media since it helps to accurately represent people and their views. The media plays a critical role in educating people regarding various cultures and emphasizing the positive facets, thus constructing the cultures of diverse societies globally and in the process avoiding stereotyping and prejudicing.
In addition, the media has a large audience that gives it a lot of influence/power to impact numerous societal and cultural issues. Thus, representing sociocultural and ideological viewpoints is helpful for enabling communication and the exchange of positive cultural values. The freedom of information can challenge dominant narratives and provide a platform for marginalized voices.
Furthermore, the media depicts various norms and values, implying that its representations impart knowledge among people on how to behave and relate.
Importance of media freedom for democratic societies
Media freedom matters for a healthy democracy, informing the public, enhancing public discourse, fostering an informed citizenry, and protecting human rights. A free press unravels the truth. Journalists are usually trained to analyze and explain numerous complicated issues.
In the absence of radio shows, television programs, newspapers, and other media forums, the average person would have difficulty understanding what is happening. Many people lack the resources and time to investigate stories and issues that impact them and their communities, making journalism important to bridge this gap.
Equipped with skills such as critical thinking and research, the most experienced journalists understand the questions that should be asked to leaders to pursue, and fact-checking. The truth remains buried if the press is unable to fact-check effectively and safely. Numerous entities, including governments, can benefit from the truth not being revealed.
In case the press is beholden to power instead of being free, it simply acts as an extension of that power. Thus, a free press plays a critical role in exposing abuses of power especially human rights violations and corruption. Free media is important for human rights since, in the absence of information, people will not understand the happenings nationally, locally, or internationally.
Furthermore, media freedom strengthens democracy and informs voters. Democracies only become better and thrive when voters are well-informed. Being informed makes sure that people understand the prevailing issues and what politicians and policies best represent them. When there is more media freedom, voters become better informed and are not at the whims/mercy of special interest groups and politicians who want to promote specific legislation and win elections.
This paper established that free and independent media is important for providing pertinent information to the public. However, for such media to exist, there is a need for freedom of information, especially access to information. On its part, the freedom of information laws and regulations promotes accountability and transparency, empowering citizens to access government-held information. These laws compel public officials to disclose certain information about their activities.
In addition, freedom of information enhances access to information for the press and media. Besides, access to information supports investigative reporting and journalism and enhances the media’s ability to cover news accurately and comprehensively. Furthermore, freedom of information contributes to a pluralistic media landscape that facilitates divergent political and ideological views.
More importantly, the right to information can enable media to challenge dominant narratives and offer a platform for marginalized voices. Finally, media freedom is essential for a healthy and vibrant democracy, protecting human rights, promoting public discourse, and informing the public.
In other words, freedom of information and freedom of the press and media are interdependent. Due to this connection, it is important for governments to establish and conform to freedom of information laws and regulations. Such laws are critical for protecting human rights and enhancing societal well-being.
Since media freedom is a reflection of the maturity of a democracy, the media and press should be protected and accorded access to information required by the public to make critical decisions. This means that agencies and governments should desist from acts of censorship that derail media freedom and freedom of information.