The Future of Press Freedom

The fourth estate faces a mounting challenge, yet thrives on the struggle

Samit Basu Published Nov 23, 2019 00:00:00 IST
The Future of Press Freedom

The 2019 global Press Freedom Index ranks India as 140th among 180 countries in the world. This is alarming in itself, and even more so when you consider that press freedom is inextricably linked with the functioning of democracy. And India is not alone in this—in several countries around the world, the most startling declines in press freedom have occurred in countries with elected leaders, mostly using technology and majoritarian values to stifle dissent, criticism and information about government failures and excesses. The future of press freedom is not just tied to the future of journalism, but the future of democracy itself, both of which are extremely uncertain at this time.

Journalism has been changing rapidly over the last two decades with the exponential expansion of digital media, and this is likely to continue. We’ve seen major upheavals in both the format and the essential nature of media. The biggest issue has been one of control—finance models have been broken, the need to constantly churn out content and attract eyeballs has led to a drop in investigative stories, original research and fact-checking, and in the resultant chaos, advertisers, corporations, politicians, governments and technological platforms have placed journalism itself under immense pressure through ceaseless attempts at influence, manipulation and censorship.

Simultaneously, there have been concerted efforts by authority figures everywhere to erode people’s trust in the media, both by subversion, proclamations and the menace of fake news—an industry of deception and distraction created by political troll factories and compliant platforms. This is not going to change with more technology shifts—as we move from smartphones to smart scrolls, smart glasses, augmented-, virtual- and mixed-reality journalism and, eventually, news fed directly to your brain, the constant struggle of journalists will be to retain enough freedom, financially, editorially and physically, to not turn into propagandists and PR engines. News automation, which will seek to replace the journalist entirely, is going to make this even more complicated.

The upcoming age of near-total surveillance is going to make finding whistleblowers and retaining anonymous sources even harder, and will also make it even easier for the powerful to prevent news from reaching the public at every stage of its dissemination. So while the need for the news media to keep a check on governments, businesses and religious authorities gone rogue, will be greater than ever, finding the resources to do this will only become more difficult. Along with these threats, the data age will provide new opportunities for journalism, as more things become measurable. We’re already seeing diverse communities and their interests being represented in the news, from mainstream journalism about neglected groups and niche interests to new voices, crowdsourced or public journalism. The demand for good journalism has not gone away yet, nor is it likely to—but the speed and flexibility required to adapt to this demand are already extraordinary. The future will bring more personalization, more cross-media consumption, more experiences, challenges, points of view and voices. It will also require more skills, creativity and empathy.

Ultimately, journalism is not about technology or finance, but about people. If people can be tricked into believing they don’t need a free press, or if algorithm-enabled totalitarianism overwhelms democracy, or if humankind somehow loses the fundamental desire for liberty and choice, the future of press freedom is indeed bleak. But the freedom of the press was never easily won or handed over; it has ever emerged out of struggle and evolution, both of which are absolute inevitabilities in our future.

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