#Journalism101: Roles and impact of an independent press

A free press contributes to the right of freedom of expression, thought and conscience, strengthens the responsiveness and accountability of governments to all citizens, and provides a platform and channel of political expression for a multiplicity of groups and interests. So, what are the crucial roles akin to an independent press and its impact?

The role of journalists as watchdogs

As a watchdog, the news media functions to promote government transparency, accountability, and public scrutiny of decision-makers in power, by highlighting regulatory and policy failures, maladministration by public officials, corruption in the judiciary, and scandals in the corporatesector.

Thus, investigative journalism can open the government’s record to external scrutiny and critical evaluation, and hold authorities accountable for their actions, whether public sector institutions, non-profit organizations, or private companies. Therefore, repressive tendencies of the news media should be prevented as it is used to reinforce the power of autocratic regimes and to deter criticism of the government by independent journalists.

The guarantee of freedom of expression and information is recognized as a basic human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations (UN) in 1948, the European Convention on Human Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

To foster democratic practices, we must ensure that members of the press are free from victimization and assaults.Journalist’s roles as watchdogs thereby promotes the transparency of government decision-making process, and exposes and hinder the misuse of public office, and financial scandals.

The role of the news media as civic forum

Equally vital, in their civic forum role, free press strengthens the public sphere, by mediating between citizens and the state, facilitating debate about the issues, and informing the public about their leaders. If the channels of communication reflect the social and cultural pluralism within each society in a fair and impartial balance, then multiple interests and voicesare heard in public deliberation.

This role is particularly important during election campaigns, as fairaccess to the airwaves by opposition parties, candidates and groups is critical for competitive, free and fair multiparty elections. During campaigns, a free media provides citizens with information to compare and evaluate the retrospective record, prospective policies and leadership characteristics of parties and candidates, providing the essential conditions for an informed choice.

The role of the news media as a civic forum remain deeply flawed where major newspapers and television stations heavily favor the governing party, in the amount or tone of coverage, rather than being open to a plurality of political viewpoints and parties during campaigns.

It is thereby important to note that where the media fails to act as an effective civic forum, democratic consolidation cane be hindered.

The impact of the free press on good governance and democracy

Freedom of press has further fostered democracy and good governance in our society. The growth of the free press and the process of democratization are thought to enhance each other in several ways:

  • the transition from autocracy opens up the media to private ownership, broadens access to the media, and reduces government control of information;
  • the media then directly contributes to democratization and governance by serving as a watch-dog (promoting accountability and transparency), a civic forum (allowing multiple voices to be heard) and an agenda-setter (highlighting social problems);
  • free press and political freedoms thus contribute indirectly to human development by encouraging government responsiveness to public concerns.

The Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism advocates for a free press and strongly believes that a free and independent media is integral to the process of democratization, good governance, and ultimately to human development.

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