“Freedom of the press is essential to political liberty. Where man can not freely convey their thoughts to one another, no freedom is secure. Where freedom of expression exists, the beginning of a free society and a means for every extension of liberty are already present. Free expression is therefore unique among liberties: it promotes and protects all the rest…”1 In our present day, the media plays a pivotal rule in shaping our society therefore when the media is distorted by propaganda, blasphemy and other forms of indoctrination, society is adversely affected. Freedom of the press acts like a key, when used this key opens the doors to democratic and just societies. In Canada freedom of the press is part of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and thus it plays an influential rule in shaping Canadian people. Section 2 (b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states the following Fundamental freedoms “freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”2 Freedom of the press is a very volatile issue because many people argue as to what extent it can be initiated. Freedom of the press is the foundation that democratic and just societies are built on.
Freedom of the press has been a disputed issue since the modern print press began in the 1400’s. Rulers and church leaders restricted the writing and distribution of certain material even before there was a press. Since AD 400’s the Roman Catholic Church has restricted material that it deemed to be contrary to the church teachings3. In those days, when everything was hand written books that were considered offensive would be burned or banned. This was one of the first restrictions to freedom of the press. The first freedoms of the press resulted from the British socialist movements in the early 1880’s. Early printers had to obtain a license from the government or from some other religious group for any material they wanted to publish. In 1644, English poet and political writer John Milton criticized such licensing in his pamphlet Aeropagitica.4 This essay was the first argument for the freedom of the press. In time Great Britain and other countries ended the licensing system thus John Milton can be considered the revolutionist for freedom of the press. In the early years 1800’s freedom of the press took advantage of its freedom this led to many abusive cases. For example U.S. newspapers published false and sensational material to attract readers. Many people favored government regulation to stop such abuses by the so-called “yellow press”5 but in most cases such regulation would have been unconstitutional. Another major stepping stone for freedom of press was Peter Kropotkin, the best-known figure in the international rebellious movement. Kropotkin in March of 1886 in England wrote a new revolutionist paper that can be considered the match that ignited the freedom press.
Freedom of the Press coincides with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms deals with fundamental freedoms. “Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression, including freedom of the press and other media communication”. 6 This section of the Charter could potentially cover a wide range of actions from commercial expressions to political expressions. The jurisprudence of the supreme court has largely been an attempt to carve out; first the purpose of section 2 (b) what values does it seek to protect, who should be entitled to its protection and second the extent of section 2 (b) what is the freedom of the press.7 Even before the Charter was enacted to the constitution, the freedom to express oneself freely has been highly revered issue in our society. Courts have recognized on numerous occasions the fundamental nature of freedom of expression subject to reasonable limits when other vital interests such as public safety are affected. Section 2 (b) of the Charter enables everyone i.e. (equality) to manifest all thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and all expression of the heart and mind however unpopular, distasteful or contrary to mainstream.8 However section 2 (b) does not protect those expressions that are communicated by violent actions against other people, nor does it negate the law of criminal and civil libel.
Limitations to Freedom of the Press
How far is too far?
There are two questions involved in deciding whether the fundamental freedom of section 2 (b) of the Charter has been infringed. First is whether the expression in issue is within scope of section 2 (b) protection. Therefore if freedom of the press infringes on section 7 of the Charter “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person and the right thereof except in accordance with the principle of fundamental.”9 If the answer to this question is yes, then the next part of the analysis involves the question of whether there has been an infringement of the right by a law and whether the infringement of the right of free expression is either justifiable or unacceptable limitation on freedom. The dual nature of this analysis is significant because of the many different interest that must be considered in deciding whether a fundamental freedom as the expression of thought or belief should be restricted in anyway. Limits come in many forms. Some limits apply to all media, other to particular media and still others to individuals communicating on their own.
Legislation Limiting Freedom of the Press
In some cases it is very important to limit freedom of the press in order to protect society’s values. The press is prohibited from printing false information about events or certain subjects. Section 181 Criminal Code: “Everyone who willing publishes a statement, tale or news that he knows is false and that causes or is likely to cause injury or mischief to public interest is guilty of an indictable offense and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.”10 This section of the Criminal Code usually applies to seditious religious publications, defamatory comments and other propaganda. In order to convict some one of this offense it is necessary to prove that the accused knew the information was false. This leaves plenty of room for a defense.
It is also necessary to protect individual rights to security of person by preventing the press from printing negative, false remarks about people. Defamation is the communication by words to third persons which would tend to cause the person about whom they were made to be shunned, avoided, exposed to ridicule or lower societies views of that person. 11Defamatory words constitute libel if the communication is in permanent form like writing. “The Criminal Code in section 265 states that publication of defamatory libel is an indictable offense punishable by imprisonment for up to two years. Section 264 of the Criminal Code states “that if the one who publishes the libel knows that it is false, the imprisonment may be up to five years.”12
The extent of Freedom of the Press Democratic Countries vs. Undemocratic Countries
Though Canada is a democratic nation where rights and freedoms are outlined in the constitution, the press is not always given the freedom that seems reasonable in a free and democratic society. The freedom of the press is often restricted if the exercise of that liberty causes a greater harm to another individual or to a society as a whole. In undemocratic countries freedom of the press does not exist or if it does the rights are severely restricted by government officials or religious leaders. In these countries freedom of the press is not absolute, the leader or leaders of the country control what is published. The consequences for the news personnel who break the press laws tend to be very harsh. In China journalism is only used as a tool to benefit the Communist Party. Leadership cannot be questioned in print.13 In Kuwait a codify ethics exists for the press. The press is forbidden to show disrespect to the leaders of “sisterly friendly nations” It is illegal to publish anything critical to the British or the Americans, the royal family, or important issues like oil.14 In Saudi Arabia the country that closely borders Afghanistan the King holds executive and legislative power and there is no formal constitution. Therefore if the king finds something offensive, he has total control over it. There is a distinct division between the counties that permit freedom of the press and those that do not and their correlation to democracy.
The Catholic viewpoint of freedom of the press
“The exercise of freedom does not imply a right to say or do everything. It is false to maintain that man, the subject of this freedom, is an individual who is fully self-sufficient and whose finality is the satisfaction of his own interests in the enjoyment of earthly goods. Moreover, the economic, social, political and cultural conditions that are needed for a just exercise of freedom are too often disregarded or violated. Such situations of blindness and injustice injure the moral life and involve the strong as well as the weak in the temptation to sin against charity. By deviating from the moral law man violates his own freedom, becomes imprisoned within himself, disrupts neighborly fellowship, and rebels against divine truth.”15 This citation from the catechism of the Catholic Church regards that freedom is essential, However the Church understands that freedom is often “disregarded or violated.” Freedom of the press is moral in nature but through mans intervention it can become immoral and corrupt.
Freedom of the press is vital to ensure a free and democratic society. Man is influenced greatly by what he sees and reads therefore freedom of the press shapes society immensely. Canada has assembled legislation in order to regulate the press. This legislation protects the rights of individuals in our society. Freedom of the press is the key to a democratic country. Democracy flourishes when the press is free and without propaganda. The Catholic Church states that “Freedom makes man responsible for his acts to the extent that they are voluntary.”16 This is also true for freedom of the press, man is responsible for what he writes because he chooses his truths.
J.M. & M.J. , Cohen. The Penguin Dictionary of Quotations.(1960, Penguin Books Ltd) 1960,
Constitution Act, 1982, Part 1 The Charter of Rights and Freedoms
Scott Fetzer Company The World Book Encyclopaedia Vol. 7 1990 USA
H.W. Wilson Company The Power of the Press Vol. 71 1999 New York, Dublin
Spaeth Harold J. Collision of Rights New York 1994