Press freedom comes with responsibility

While no individual desires to have their freedom clipped, freedom does not walk alone, it walks with responsibility. It can be compared to a child and its mother; separating them is an attempt to deny the child a motherly love and the mother, the exercising of a natural duty to show love, care and concern.

While no individual desires to have their freedom clipped, freedom does not walk alone, it walks with responsibility. It can be compared to a child and its mother; separating them is an attempt to deny the child a motherly love and the mother, the exercising of a natural duty to show love, care and concern.

Every year on the 3rd of May, Rwanda and the rest of the world celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom around the world where they deliberate on defending the media from attacks in the exercise of their right to inform. 

This year’s event was celebrated under the theme “Let Journalism Thrive! Towards better Reporting, Gender Equality, and Safety in the Digital Age”.  It is true that the media is the fourth estate of the realm and is a watchdog of society. The question however remains: who watches the watchdog?

The press, both traditional and digital, today plays a vital role in our society. They inform the general public about events and issues that affect them. They are the protectors and demonstrators of exercising the fundamental right to free speech.

The press is sometimes called the fourth estate. That’s probably too grandiose a concept for most journalists’ tastes – but it does suggest an important, coherent and independent force in society.

In our democratic societies, free, diverse and pluralist media enables public debates and serve as an essential check on power, either vested on governments, politicians or corporations.

Additionally, they facilitate access to information, and help foster both public and corporate transparency and accountability. The pluralism and diversity of opinions can ideally find lively and inclusive platforms where democratic debates thrive in open societies.

The main aim of the press is to ensure the right of citizens to truthful and important information, which allows them to form adequate impression about social processes, their essence and importance, about the situation in the modern world.

For a proper functioning of any democracy, it is essential that citizens are kept informed about news from various parts of the country and even abroad, because only then can they form rational opinions.

A citizen surely cannot be expected personally to gather news to enable them to form such opinions. Hence, the media plays an important role in a democracy and serve as an agency of the people to gather news for them.

Historically, the media have been organs of the people against feudal oppression. In Europe, the media played a major role in transforming a feudal society into a modern one.

The print media played a role in preparing for, and during, the British, American and French Revolutions. The print media were used by writers such as Rousseau, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Junius and John Wilkes in the people’s fight against feudalism and despotism.

Everyone knows of the great stir created by Thomas Paine’s pamphlet ‘Common Sense’ during the American Revolution, or of the letters of Junius during the reign of the despotic George III.

On the other hand irresponsible journalism also has a record of causing serious harm to society. Various civil wars have been fueled by inclined press coverage or what is termed as hate media.

During the horrific genocide in Rwanda in 1994, the then Rwandan media played a major part in supporting, or creating an atmosphere to sanction the terrible human suffering that ensued.

A journalist bears responsibility before the society in general, before the law and before the professional association. The social responsibility of the journalist requires that they act in accordance with their personal ethical standards.

Articulating, representing and defending local interests is one of the normative roles for the press, society interests relates to the press freedom. This does not supersede the autonomy of the press rather it makes it responsible for its actions and informative roles to the community, which is not to destroy but to embrace the coexistence among the diverse members of the society.

Alongside this, accountability should be consistently observed when the media seeks to be free from all the checks that sections of society desire to place on it. This, however, must not limit their freedom since the media can make a case of checking itself.

The Rwanda Governance Board (RGB) has in the last few years spearheaded a series of reforms to give way to the creation of a modern, free media sector.

Among others was the reform that gave way to the Media Law of 2013, a legal framework that seeks to counter external censorship on the media to which the negative involvement of the media in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi is largely attributed.

The ethics of the press must involve permanent responsibility of the journalist for everything they do in the framework of their professional obligations.

Respecting the right of society to objective information, the journalist must convey truthful information and a whole spectrum of opinions on certain issues. The news should be based on facts and information where truthfulness prevails.

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