The Concept of Press Freedom


The Concept of Press Freedom

As a journalist, you need to know the basis of your freedom. As such, this unit will look at the freedom of expression, press freedom as enunciated by international laws and conventions and of course the Nigerian Constitution.

At the end of this article, you should be able to:

Define press freedom

Differentiate between the freedom of expression and press freedom

Identify the limitation of your freedom as a journalist working in Nigeria.


The Meaning of Press Freedom

Liberty or freedom of expression and the meaning:

Laying no previous restraint upon publication. Liberty of the press means laying no previous or prior censorship of publication. Every person has the right to lay what sentiments, facts, information or publication he has before the public. 

To forbid this right is to destroy freedom of expression and the press; but, where a person publishes what is unlawful, criminal, defamatory or mischievous; he must face the consequences of his publication.

Liberty of the press consists in laying no previous restrain upon publication and not in freedom from censorship for criminal matters published. Every man has the undoubted right to lay what sentiment he pleases before the public… to forbid that is to destroy the freedom of the press- but if he publishes what is illegal or mischievous he must face the consequences of his own temerity”

Concisely, the liberty of the press is a right with a responsibility. The freedom of expression which Ray Ekpu (1998) regarded as the grandmother of all freedom has been given an important place in virtually all international and national charters of human rights.

For instance, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Right States that: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontier.

Article 19 (1) of the international Convention on Civil and Political Right says that “Everyone shall have the Right to hold opinion without interference.” The African charter on Human and Peoples’ Right Article 9 says “Every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law.

In most countries of the world including Nigeria, freedom of expression has always been given a significant place.


History of Press Freedom

The revolution caused by the invention of printing brought about literacy, development of modern European languages and of course, the establishment of newspapers. This eventually led to the symbolic relationship between the government and the media, a relationship that still exists until date.

By this relationship, the government tried to maintain power and control press over the dissemination of information about government activities. The public (through the media newspapers) wanted to know what the governments were doing.

Hence, the conflict between these two forces, which still continues up until date. Throughout the history of mankind, people have really fought for the freedom of speech. Laws have been passed and wars fought over people’s rights to express ideas publicly.

According to history, the great philosopher, Socrates, is said to be the first known person to fight for freedom of speech. When he was accused of corrupting the morals of the youths of Athens through his teachings, Socrates confessed that he is ready to die many times if that is the sacrifice he has to make in the course of speaking his mind in his search for wisdom. This, clearly, means fighting for the freedom of speech and expression.

Definition of Press Freedom

Press freedom is actually an extension of the freedom of expression. The concept of freedom of press has been something on the lips of many people right from the olden days. For instance, in Nigeria, if we look back at the earliest newspapers such as Rev. Henry Townsend’s Iwe Irohin published in 1859 and the other newspapers that followed it, we will observe the struggle for press freedom.

It is unfortunate and regrettable that up until date, the freedom of the press has not been protected despite pressmen’s involvement in government in many cases.

Prominent Nigerians such as late Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe, Ernest Ikoli, Chief Anthony Enahoro, Alhaji Babatunde Jose, late Dele Giwa, Nosa Igiebor, etc. have fought for freedom of the press, yet they have not been able to guarantee it. Robert L. Stevenson in J.C Merrill (1995:63) rightly observed that: Everyone is in favour of freedom of the press. 

The problem is lack of agreement on what it is and who has it……. This simply means that press freedom is still a rare commodity in the world. Merrill (1995:69).

This is why Nigerian journalists, like their counterparts in some parts of the world, are still agitating for press freedom today.

The definition of press freedom is relatively obscure. However, it can generally be said that “press freedom is the freedom a journalist has to perform his duties without interference of any kind, while still maintaining ethical standards.”


The Concept of Press Freedom

Contemporary Freedom

With the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, independent journalism began to thrive and find foot in Africa since the 1990s.

The fact could be justified from announcement of PANA (Pan Africa News Agency) towards a change to independent reporting. Hence, many African countries, media organizations which, hitherto, had very little powers began to challenge government authority. 

Unfortunately, the wave of democracy sweeping through the developing countries is still lacking in some of these countries. The effect is that many African countries still have a very long way to go. It is, however, hoped that the countries involved will learn from one another, while still, collectively, forging ahead towards the common goal of achieving press freedom.


Current Trends

In 1991, a study done on “human rights” in 104 countries showed that there is an improvement in human rights conditions. The work noted that there has been an unparalleled improvement in this direction for five years ranging from 1986-1991 A similar progress was also reported by Freedom House. By the Freedom House categorization of Press Freedom in 1993, it was observed that only 25 percent of the world’s population operated a free press, 44 percent partly free press, while 31 percent were not free.

Another analysis of the Freedom House looked at a number of countries rather than the percentages that fell under these different categories. It also observed that 67 countries were regarded as having a free press, 60 partly free and 50, not free. It also observed that the number of Countries improving in press freedom outnumbered those with declining freedom.



All over the world, press freedom is under one kind of threat or the other. Since democracy initiates a constant battle between different forces in the society, most people are seen demanding freedom for themselves.

Unfortunately, these people do not carry along this enthusiasm for demanding freedom when they are in power. This is often because at this stage, they now face challenges from both political and journalistic oppositions.

These struggles are important because they define the scope of press freedom in the different countries, which the rest of the whole may aspire to attain. These were the views of Stevenson, which he considers responsible for the challenges facing press freedom.

The scope of press freedom, however, depends on the individual countries of the world and the extent of the relationship of the media and the government in each country. In addition, it borders on what provisions each Country’s constitution makes for the freedom of speech/expression generally and for the freedom of the press in particular.

For according to Udoakah, freedom of the press is not an idea that can be conceptualized in a vacuum. It is rather a factor of other circumstances. To him, freedom of the press is not just the right of the journalist to publish news and comments without interference.

In the views of Udoakah (1994) in J.C Merrill (1995:223), it also includes: The right of the people to express themselves in the media of public communication without being curtailed by those who wield political, religious, economic and other powers. It means the availability of the press to people.

The people should be given free and unimpeded access to news and information….

According to him, freedom of the press is therefore, the relative absence of governmental, economic and other controls in the operation of the press. Given this scenario, it is obvious that the future for press freedom is still bleak because most African governments are not willing to fully succumb to the demands of absolute press freedom.


Coverage of Africa by the Western Media

As earlier mentioned, the coverage of Africa by the western world is not only shabby, but also predominantly negative. This can be vividly ascertained by the findings of Gary T. Hunt (1996:189) who examined (investigated) “the image” of Africa as reflected by the elite American press.

His findings are in line with the observations of Hatchten and Beil (1985) and Martin (1992) who posited that Africa is “one of the most underreported regions in the world, even though Africa is the second largest continent of the world”.

Some of the findings of G.T Hunt in his study are:

i) The Association Press (AP’s) coverage of Africa reflects crises and conflicts from troubled spots.

ii) The developing countries have often been scantily reported by the western media

iii) The interests of the American media audience dictate the coverage in the media.

The perception of American editors appears to be that their audience have limited or virtually no interest in Third World events and news, hence, their scanty coverage of these areas.

Unfortunately, this is the opposite of what happens in the Third World countries, who rather, have American news consistently featuring in their media.

There is, therefore, a lack of reciprocity. When foreign news does appear in the American media, it tends to focus on Western Europe, South Asia, the Far East, and the Middle East (G.T Hunt, in Merrill: 1995:192). These are the areas which they have business relationships with, apart from regional proximity with them.

These factors determine their coverage of foreign news. Although journalists, in the Western world are encouraged to write chaotic stories about Africa, the Western audience does not care about these stories on disaster and coups. This is because many media organizations in the Western world have ‘decided that Africa is no longer politically fashionable or newsworthy.

iv) American news has the tendency to produce odd and strange news about Africa.

v) The coverage of Africa by the Western media lacks in-depth analysis and highly researched background material. Suffice it, however, to say that Hunt also recognized some reasons for this biased coverage of Third World countries.


Reasons for biased Coverage of Africa

1.  Complexity and unnecessary bureaucracy in gaining entry into Third World countries. Difficult travel conditions and cost of reporting on such a large continent as Africa.

2. The size of Africa and the distance between countries of interest that the Western media may want to cover or report.

3. The focus on Western media audience interest, which is the prime concern of Western editors.

The findings of G.T Hunt actually reflect the need for the Western media and particularly the American news media to have a serious rethink, and take a look at the way it covers Africa.

On the other hand, African countries must work with American reporters to make it easier for them to cover the continent; for both objective news coverage is possible only when both the source and the reporter fully understand each other’s role

Therefore, both the American media and the African countries have a big role to play in rectifying these discrepancies in the Western media coverage of Africa.


Constitutional Guarantees

The first amendment to the American Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law to abrogate the freedom of the press.” In Nigeria, the concept of the liberty of the press is embodied in Section 39 (1) of the 1999 Constitution which says “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinion and to receive and impart ideas and information”.

Some justification for a free press as follows.

• First, that the institution of a free press- that is a press is independent and free of censorship is an essential element of every Free State and modern democracy.

• Second, it is held that it is the function and indeed, the duty of the press to keep the citizens of a country informed of the different opinions which are being expressed, so that the citizens can make the political decision which a democracy demands of them.

• In addition, it has been held that the security of constitutional government lies in effecting peaceful change based on the worthiness and appeal of opposing programmes and ideas presented to the public by the competitor for political power.

Besides, it is widely considered that freedom of the press is essential to the individual’s own development and realization. It must however be pointed out that the freedom of expression clause as stated in the Nigerian Constitution does not specifically mention media practitioners.

Rather, it says “every person,” which presupposes that every member of the society has a right to write and to print as they will and gather news for any publication without interference.


Limits to Freedom of the Press

There is no absolute freedom anywhere, even in the freest societies of the world. The freedom or right of one person or the press to publish should not destroy the right of another man or the right of society to exist and be safe from the effect of wrongful, harmful, defamatory or mischievous publications. 

Therefore, the press has freedom and equal responsibility that goes with that freedom. It has a right and a duty. For every right or freedom that is claimed or enjoyed there is a corresponding duty.

In the words of Denning L. J: To our way of thinking, it is elementary that each man should be able to inquire and seek after truth until he has found it. Everyone in the land should be free to think his own thoughts, have his own opinion and give voice to them, in public or in private, so long as he does not speak ill of his neighbour, and free also to criticize the government or any party or group of people, so long as he does not incite anyone to violence.

In short, while the press wants absolute and unhindered freedom, the freedom has to be limited in the overall interest of everyone in society including the press by:

The Constitution

The Legislature

The Courts; and

The Government

While guaranteeing freedom of expression and the press, the constitution is also quick to impose limitations. For example: The 1999 Constitution makes freedom of expression subject to any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.

Section 39 (3) says: Nothing in this section shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.

a. For the purpose of preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, maintaining the authority and independence of courts or regulating telephony, wireless broadcasting, television or the exhibition of cinematographic films; or

b. Imposing restrictions upon persons holding office under the Government of the Federal or of a State, members of the Nigerian Police Force or other government security services established by law. Section 45 (1) provides:

“Nothing in Section 37, 38, 40 and 41 of this Constitution shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.

a) In the interest of defense, public safety, public order, public morality; public health; or

b) For the purpose of protection of the rights and freedom of other persons.

In pursuance of this constitutional provision, for the protection of the public and private individuals legislatures in Nigeria are therefore free and have been able to pass laws in the following areas:

a) Contempt of court and contempt of parliament

b) Disclosure or publication of official secrets including defense and security information

c) Publication of obscene and harmful literature and materials

d) Sedition and seditious publication

e) Defamation; and

f) Regulation of telephony, wireless broadcasting, television or the exhibition of cinematography films.


Conclusion on the Concept of Press Freedom

The freedom of expression and freedom of the press given by the constitution are not without limits or warnings. It is important for every media practitioner to know that there is a limit to his or her freedom of expression so as not to run afoul of the law.

The freedom of expression and freedom of the press are so important that virtually all-international and national charters of human rights recognize them. Besides, most countries of the world including Nigeria have enshrined freedom of expression and freedom of the press in their constitutions. However, it must be noted that the freedom is not limited to journalists alone, also the freedom is not without restriction from the constitution, from government, courts and legislations.

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