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Stopping the Press

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Freedom of the press, it seems, is amongst the most contentious topics of our times. For the past two years, we have heard reports from the Leveson inquiry and concerns for the freedom of the press across are frequently voiced in Western media outlets.

Indeed, this past week, we at Edinburgh University have witnessed our own version of a press freedom controversy, after Edinburgh University Students' Association (EUSA) served the Student with an interim interdict that prevented it from publishing the first issue of the semester.

In the EUSA case, the interdict was issued in order to prevent the distribution of an article that EUSA believed would be damaging to its reputation. The Student is still not able to comment on the contents of this article, despite popular speculation as to its subject. The EUSA censorship controversy, however, is merely the tip of an iceberg in the debate on the freedom of the press.

It is not difficult to cite examples of press censorship and the curtailment or restrictions of press freedoms across the world. In Nepal, 22 journalists were last month forced to flee from the ruling United Communist Party (UCPN), following threats from UCPN cadres when they questioned the reasons for the death of a colleague. Thai editor Somyot Prueksakakasemsuk has recently been sentenced to 11 years in prison for publishing articles said to have insulted the country's monarch, having already been held in pre-trial detention for 20 months. In 2012, Ethiopian journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega was jailed for 18 years for his dissident articles defending freedom of expression. This is to name but a few examples, but these incidents are clear demonstrations of the way in which the controversies of press freedoms and limitations continue to fuel debate in the twenty-first century.

Freedom of the press can be defined as right to publish newspapers, magazines, and other printed matter without governmental restriction and subject only to the laws of libel, obscenity, and sedition. Indeed, the idea of the free press is a product of modern democratic systems, and one that such systems purportedly support and aspire to. According to Reporters Without Borders, a French-founded organisation campaigning for freedom of expression and information worldwide, almost half of the world's population is denied this liberty. Censorship, on the other hand, is the suppression of communication - written or verbal - which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive or inconvenient, especially to a ruling authority. This is - as the above cases indicate - evidently widespread.

According to the Press Freedom Index, a global 'indicator' of worldwide media freedom, the UK is currently ranked as 29th of 179 countries in terms of levels of press freedom. This ranking is viewed as 'satisfactory' by Reporters Without Borders. Finland, the Netherlands and Norway topped the list, with China, Iran, Somalia, Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea bringing up the rear, in what Reporters Without Borders deem a 'very serious situation'.

At this point, the more sceptical amongst us might question what is actually so important about the freedom of the press. The answer most readily offered by journalists, NGOs, liberal governments and the majority of the population is that it is a pillar of modern democracy. Reporters Without Borders deems it 'the world's most important freedom' and 'the foundation of any democracy', as it is what enables the population to make informed decisions as part of the democratic process. It is the job of journalists to inform citizens of facts considered to be in their interest to know, and to hold politicians and other leaders in society accountable for how they govern. If it weren't for such freedoms to report facts, denounce abuses and alert the public to things in their interest to know - whether on a university-wide, regional, national or international level - one might justly question how the world is to resist problems such as corruption, child soldiering, and global warming. How, for example, would the debate on women's rights in India have developed in the afermath of the gang rape and murder in New Delhi had it not been for the freedom of journalists to report and denounce such a horrific crime? Indeed, would the debate have been raised at all? As Reporters Without Borders points out: "In some countries, torturers stop their atrocious deeds as soon as they are mentioned in the media. In others, corrupt politicians abandon their illegal habits when investigative journalists publish compromising details about their activities. Still elsewhere, massacres are prevented when the international media focuses its attention and cameras on events."

Of course, there are criticisms - and valid criticisms at that - of unrestricted press liberties. There are ethical concerns relating to journalistic practice and the sourcing of evidence, as the News International phone hacking scandal has proved in recent years. You don't need to have been paying huge amounts of attention to realise that the Leveson inquiry was big news in the UK, as the ethics and realities of press practices were questioned in the wake of the News International scandal. This shows real and legitimate concerns on the practices of the free press, as whilst this liberty is a fundamental pillar of modern democracy, the violation of other civil rights - such as that of personal privacy - is evidently questionable.

In reconciling this, it is undeniably important that freedom of the press is not put on the back-burner. Of course incidents such as those in the phone tapping scandals should not be permitted to happen again, and as such, laws for the regulation of press practices are crucial. However, this does not mean the same thing as permitting censorship: it is merely the practices of the press, not the contents of journalistic production that should be strictly regulated. The press should conform to ethical standards, with journalists, and arguably bloggers, conforming to media laws, but should not be restricted on arbitrary grounds by the governing authorities. If this were the case, the media could not perform its own role as informer and regulator properly.

There is no denying that in many parts of the world, there is a long way to go in fulfilling press freedoms. What is important is that not merely journalists, but the world population in general, recognises and regards the importance of the such liberties, and the fundamental role that it has to play in the modern world. If the world were to see ethical, high-quality journalism which could truly hold its governments accountable to those they purport to represent, then the positive transformative power of the free press might finally be realised.

This article was originally published in The Student newspaper on 12 February 2013