Freedom of the press can be treated as a special category of freedom of speech. The media don’t just need freedom for the sake of their owners or employees; they perform a vital service for the public at large. But this also means that they carry special responsibilities.
The public’s right to know
One way to think about journalism’s special role is to look again at Article 19 of the ICCPR. Note that it doesn’t just mention the right to impart or send information and ideas; it also refers to everyone’s right to receive. You could say that journalism exists to serve people’s right to receive, more than the journalist’s individual right to speak.
Free and responsible
Freedom of the press means freedom from and freedom for. The press must be free from the menace of external compulsions from whatever source. … It must be free for making its contributions to the maintenance and development of a free society. This implies that the press must also be accountable. It must be accountable to society for meeting the need and for maintaining the rights of citizens and the almost forgotten rights of speakers who have no press.” – A Free and Responsible Press, page 18.
The 1947 American report, A Free and Responsible Press, contains one of the earliest arguments for why media freedom carries with it special duties that individual citizens don’t. TIME publisher Henry Luce (left) commissioned the report, which was written by a panel of experts chaired by University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins. Although written in pre-internet and even pre-TV times, it remains an elegantly written exposition of what came to be known as the “social responsibility” tradition in journalism. (The book can downloaded or read online here.)
Many types of journalism (and pseudo-journalism) can operate without much media freedom. For example, lifestyle reporting, celebrity gossip and disguised marketing is able to thrive in restricted environments. Media freedom is really needed for investigative journalism in the public interest, or what some call “accountability” journalism, which holds the powerful to account. Here is a video on the importance of such journalism. It is from the Global Investigative Journalism Network, which also includes case studies of high-impact investigative reports from around the world.