Freedom of the press is attacked all around the world. The recently released 2019 edition of the Press Freedom Index shows once more a decline in press freedom—a trend that has been holding on for many years. As Reporters Without Borders, which compiles the index every year, writes, “hatred of journalists has degenerated into violence” at this point, “contributing to an increase in fear.” In the meantime, “authoritarian regimes continue to tighten their grip on the media.”
Attacks on Freedom of the Press
The attacks on freedom of the press are undoubtedly shocking. Most of the Western world considers—or at least considered—it a fundamental principle of any free society. And yet, especially in the West, the principle has been losing value recently. Journalists are frequently murdered for their reporting—mostly for criticizing governments, from the brutal rape and murder of Viktoria Marinova in Bulgaria and the murder of Slovakian journalist Ján Kuciak last year to a Maltese reporter in 2017 killed by a car bomb and the recent death of a Northern Irish journalist, who was shot on the open street during riots.
The way governments like those in Hungary, Russia, or Turkey have handled opposition voices in the press has been well-documented, with crackdowns on free media outlets that are often expropriated, arrests against those unwilling to comply, and other policies trying to constrain journalists from doing their jobs. As George Mason, one of the Founding Fathers of the U.S. said, “the freedom of the press is one of the bulwarks of liberty.”Less known are increasing demands from politicians in supposedly still free countries to do away with unconstrained press freedom.
For instance, EU politicians have proposed regulations on the press, and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that “press freedom also has its limits.” Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader in the UK, argued that “change is coming” to the British press whenever he becomes prime minister. There is no need to further comment on the attitude of the White House.
With press freedom on the decline around the globe—and now also in the Western world—it seems natural to look for solutions, to try to safeguard one of the most important building blocks of any liberal society.
As George Mason, one of the Founding Fathers of the U.S. said, “the freedom of the press is one of the bulwarks of liberty,” and Samuel Adams thought “there is nothing so fretting and vexatious, nothing so terrible to tyrants … as a free press.”
Economic Freedom and a Free Press Go Hand in Hand
It does jump out when looking at the new ranking from the Reporters Without Borders that in general, the more economically free a country is, the freer the press is, too. Comparing the country scores in the Press Freedom Index with the scores in the Index of Economic Freedom from the Heritage Foundation shows a clear relationship between one and the other.
The “coincidences” continue when looking at which countries are doing particularly well and which ones are not. Norway, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Denmark represent the five countries worldwide with the freest press, closely followed by Switzerland and New Zealand—all functioning market economies with a considerable amount of freedom in both economic as well as social affairs (despite what the likes of Bernie Sanders or Bill Maher say).
Meanwhile, worst are countries that can be considered anything but economically free, from Turkmenistan and North Korea to China and Eritrea. Venezuela, a country that has been suffering complete chaos for several years thanks to socialism and has reached new levels of authoritarian tendencies in recent months, fell in the rankings and is now at number 148 in press freedom around the world (with 180 ranked).
All of this is not overly surprising. As Ludwig von Mises wrote in The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, “a free press can exist only where there is private control on the means of production,” i.e. in a system based on secure private property rights. Indeed, noted Friedrich Hayek, “there can be no freedom of press if the instruments of printing are under government control.”
The moment the media is predominantly in the hands of the government, the government can control what is printed—and, unfortunately, if this situation is reached, governments have historically not been shy about using control over the press for their own purposes.
A free press can only exist in an environment that is free. This once more proves that one kind of freedom—like press freedom—cannot be had without other types of freedom—such as economic freedom. Or, to put it differently: For a flourishing media landscape that is independent and where journalists are free to do their job, we need a free society with a private media. Within the saddening news of declining press freedom found in the new Press Freedom Index, this crucial lesson can be found, as well.
This article is reprinted with permission from the Austrian Economics Center.