No human right is more important than free speech. Without it, no other rights can be asserted and defended. Free speech—the right of anyone to criticize and evaluate the claims of anyone else—is the best environment for discovering political, social, economic, and scientific truths. Political, religious, and ideological absolutists and authoritarians cannot tolerate criticism that punctures and wounds their delusions and dogmas. They look for ways to silence the offensive speakers, including imprisonment and murder.
Freedom House, an independent think tank based in Washington, DC, has been publishing its annual Freedom of the Press report on media independence around the world since 1980. During that time, it has documented a significant global upswing in press freedom. In 1986, Freedom House reported that in only 24 percent of countries were the media free from government control, and 55 percent had no free press.
The rest had a partially free press. By 2006, Freedom House reported that the share of countries with a free press had increased to 38 percent, whereas the not-free fraction had fallen to 32 percent. In its latest 2017 report, the think tank’s researchers unhappily note that the global trend toward greater press freedom has recently been set back somewhat. By 2016, only 31 percent of countries enjoyed a free press. In 33 percent, the media were not free. The rest were partly free.
What is the future of press freedom? In a free society, people can pursue and propound their own versions of the truth. In a despotic, fear-based society, everyone must submit to and live with lies. Societies in which citizens can speak freely flourish; societies where speech is muzzled by despots shrivel.