Vladimir Putin’s infliction on the Russian people of a second Iron Curtain has demonstrated more effectively than any number of seminars and lectures possibly could the critical importance of freedom of the press to governmental accountability.
Putin’s nationwide censorship of any news or reports that contradict his characterization of the lie that he is “de-nazifying” Ukraine, enforced by a brutal 15-year prison sentence for violators, has plunged most Russians into a state of darkness and ignorance. Most know very little about the horrific, unprovoked war that Putin has launched against Ukraine and the atrocities against civilians that constitute war crimes, by any measure.
Such is life in a totalitarian nation in which freedom of the press does not exist. Some Russians, through access to private internet networks, are aware of Putin’s horrors and are demonstrating against the dictator in Moscow and elsewhere. Some 8,000 courgeous protestors have been jailed, leaving them to face a very uncertain future.
Suppose circumstances were otherwise. Suppose an iron curtain had not descended across the country and Russians were, in fact, informed by professionally trained journalists who report from the front lines about the conduct of the war-- its costs, casualties and tragedies. Armed with knowledge about the war, the Russian people might rise in opposition and bring it to an end.
Putin’s censorship, however, chokes the pipeline of information and knowledge and, with it, the emergence of dissenters capable of ending the catastrophe. His totalitarianism, including his war on the press, represents a stark lesson for Americans who take freedom of the press for granted.
Freedom of the press, we should recall, serves several vital functions in a democracy. It certainly promotes individual fulfillment, knowledge and understanding of the issues of the day. It is critically linked to self-government, social change and the exchange of ideas. A free press, in its historic role as “the fourth estate,” performs the crucial function of checking government and holding it accountable to both the law and the American people. In addition, a free press is capable of confronting powerful institutions and organizations and other centers of authority.
The founders of the First Amendment, Justice Hugo Black wrote in his powerful opinion in The Pentagon Papers Case, had these critical functions, among others, in mind when they drafted the Free Press Clause: “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”
Freedom of the press, alone, cannot prevent governmental errors of policy, laws and programs, any more than it can guarantee that an informed citizenry will act wisely and exhibit good judgment. Nor does freedom of the press guarantee that newspapers will be free of errors, but what profession is always right?
What freedom of the press does do, more than anything else, is that it gives democracy an opportunity to succeed. No country aspiring to become a democracy, and no democracy aspiring to success, can accomplish such an end without freedom of the press because, without it, the citizenry will live in ignorance and darkness. Governmental accountability will forever lie beyond the reach of the people without freedom of the press.
For all those in recent years who have railed against the press as “the enemy of people” and delighted in despoiling the Fourth Estate and destroying its reputation because it represents a hindrance to their own autocratic aims, it is important to understand that those attacks are cut from the same cloth as Putin’s attacks on independent news in Russia.
The line between democracy and authoritarianism is thin when the institutions created to defend the rule of law, liberty and justice are brought low. The line, we might say, begins and ends with an informed citizenry determined to defend democratic values, principles and freedoms. Justice George Sutherland, one of the most conservative Justices in the history of the Supreme Court, wrote in 1936, in Grosjean v. American Press Co., that the people are entitled to “full information in respect of the doings or misdoings of their government; informed public opinion is the most potent of all restraints upon misgovernment.”
David Adler is president of The Alturas Institute, created to advance American Democracy through promotion of the Constitution, civic education, equal protection and gender equality. He has lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. His scholarly writings have been quoted by the US Supreme Court, lower federal courts and by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.