In architecture, pillars are used to create taller buildings or structures. A pillar transfers the weight of structures above to structures below through compression. Throughout history, pillars have played a pivotal role in humankind’s ability to make taller buildings without collapsing. History’s most famous structures, such as the U.S. Capitol, the Parthenon, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Dome of the Rock not only show society’s technological progress, but the pursuit of intellectual progress. The elevated heights of these structures are symbolic of humanity’s desire for elevated thinking.
Lofty “intellectual structures” such as American democracy, require pillars to keep it stable. According to political sociologist Larry Diamond, one of the pillars of democracy is “the active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life”. Key to this democratic pillar is the unfettered operation of a free press. A free press is “the right to publish and disseminate information, thoughts, and opinions without restraint or censorship as guaranteed under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” A free press is an indispensable tool for providing the people with information requisite to actively participate in political and civic life.
A democracy, by definition, is a government ruled by the people. Its leaders are accountable to the public, and a free press aids in that accountability. A free press functions as a watchdog that can investigate and report on government wrongdoing. Some of the world’s most successful democratic nations place a large emphasis on ensuring press freedoms. Norway, for example, has been ranked as the No. 1 country for press freedoms according to the 2020 World Press Freedoms Index. Consequentially, the government of Norway has been ranked as having the best relationship to its citizens according to an Economist Intelligence Unit report.
On the other side of the coin, some of the most tyrannous regimes heavily emphasize controlling or completely stifling the press’–and by association, the people’s–voice. One of the lowest ranked nations on The World Press Freedoms Index, Turkey, is the world’s most frequent jailer of journalists. Additionally, the government has eliminated some of its most prominent media outlets and replaced them with a pro-government media conglomerate. Consequently, Turkey is home to major civil unrest and widespread injustice, especially for media participants.
The United States ranks 45th on the Reporters without Borders Press Freedoms Index. Furthermore, the U.S. was recently marked as a “flawed democracy,” according to the Economist Global Democracy study. In recent years, President Donald Trump and his associates within the federal government have exhibited behavior that demonstrates that the United States no longer advocates freedom of the press. From White House journalists’ press passes being revoked and other reporters being targeting while in the field, anti-press sentiments remain a threat to American democracy.
Freedom of the press isn’t just vital to journalists or other participants in the media, but it is also vital to the protection of the rights of the people to speak as they wish and to have access to information needed to govern the nation. As John McCain said in a 2017 interview:
“If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”
For a democracy to succeed, it must be built upon the pillar of a free press. Only when this is so can a nation be elevated to new intellectual heights and responsibly participate in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.