Two cornerstones of democracy—freedom of expression and freedom of information—are under concerted attack, in the United States and around the world.
In the US, for example, reactionary elected officials seek to ban books in schools, often in the name of protecting children; and government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, seek to curb online speech that they deem dangerous.
Here and globally, tech companies and social media platforms engage in algorithmic gatekeeping, throttling online traffic to progressive news outlets and vital LGBTQ+ content, while embattled leaders in nations such as Benin and Malaysia use “fake news” laws—enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic, ostensibly to restrict misinformation about it—to harass, jail, or silence journalists whose reporting challenges those regimes. Anonymous individuals serve the fossil fuel industry by filing bogus copyright complaints to stifle investigative journalists and news outlets whose work is critical of the industry.
Threats to freedom of expression and freedom of information, such as these, undermine the possibility of a well-informed public, which, in turn, erode the effectiveness of democratic institutions. Freedom of expression and access to information are foundational rights, meaning they are essential to the protection and exercise of other basic rights: They insure, for example, that each person, community, and society can express their fundamental needs—for clean water, healthy food, adequate shelter, and fresh air, not to mention healthcare, education, and fair wages. One international human rights organization, Article 19, describes freedom of expression as the “lifeblood of democracy.”
This is one fundamental reason that numerous organizations—including Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Press Institute, and Article 19—promote press freedom and defend the rights of journalists. Journalists serving the public interest protect fundamental human rights. They are “on the front line,” defending and promoting all people’s rights to freedom of expression and information.
Those rights were formally articulated in Paris, seventy-five years ago, when the General Assembly of the United Nations affirmed freedom of information and expression as inalienable human rights. Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) declared that “everyone” has the right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Of course, just because an organization such as the United Nations asserts that freedom of expression and information are universal and inalienable does not mean this is automatically true for everyone everywhere. Far from it. The broad and widening gap between the ideals expressed in Article 19 and the reality of the world in which we live inspires my work with Project Censored, a news watch organization that champions independent journalism and critical media literacy education.
Since 1976, Project Censored has vetted and highlighted independent news reporting on important social issues that corporate news outlets have failed to cover. Often those failures are due to the corporate media’s narrow definitions of who and what count as “newsworthy.”
By privileging official, elite perspectives and interests, corporate news subtly but significantly undermines the ideals of free expression declared in Article 19. This systemic bias in corporate media treats most of the world’s population as passive bystanders, whose rights to expression are irrelevant or undesirable. As Arundhati Roy wrote in An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire (2006), “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
Critical media literacy, the second component of Project Censored’s mission, provides people with practical tools to engage media proactively. Critical media literacy education raises questions about power, focusing especially on connections between concentrated ownership of media and the production, distribution, and interpretation of media messages. The ability to determine the trustworthiness of specific news reports, for example, hinges on understanding how news “frames” our view of the world—including how that framing often reflects (and reinforces) deep-rooted power dynamics and enduring social inequalities.
Many people in the US might scoff at the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights as either an anachronism from a bygone era in international politics or, in US context, a redundancy, given this nation’s Bill of Rights. But not even journalists working in the United States—ostensibly protected under the First Amendment—can take for granted the right to freedom of expression articulated in Article 19 of the UDHR.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker carefully documents press freedom violations in the United States, including arrests, equipment seizures, assaults, and interrogations, which occur on a shockingly regular basis. In the most extreme cases, journalists face grave threats for doing their jobs. In February 2023, Dylan Lyons, a reporter for Spectrum News 13 was killed while working at the scene of a homicide in Pine Hills, Florida; his colleague, photojournalist Jesse Walden, was critically wounded. And, in September 2022, Jeff German, an investigative reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, was stabbed to death outside his home. The suspect charged with premeditated murder is a former county official who was the subject of past and pending reporting by German.
Seventy-five years since ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the chasm between these grim realities and Article 19’s lofty ideals might be interpreted as cause for pessimism. But we cannot fall into despair; the stakes are too high. Instead, I interpret the UDHR’s bold affirmation of freedom of expression as a compass arrow that can reliably orient us, especially when our target destination is not directly visible.
If Article 19 points us in the desired direction, then critical media literacy education and independent journalism provide guidance along the way. They signal where pitfalls threaten to ensnare us, and they alert us to how the power of media can be harnessed to remake our world in closer alignment with the values articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.