This lesson explores the importance of a free press to democracy, through conversation with journalists from the United States and South Africa. The United States is a centuries-old democracy and South Africa made the transition to democracy from apartheid approximately 20 years ago, but both countries enshrine the right to a free press in their constitutions. “Founding fathers” of both nations emphasized the necessity of a free press: Thomas Jefferson insisted that “our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”1 Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first freely-elected President, explained that “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy . . . . It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.”2
Freedom House, an independent organization devoted to human rights and civil liberties, defines a free press as “a media environment where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.”3 In their 2016 assessment of international press freedom, Freedom House classified the US press as “free” and South Africa’s as “partly free.”4 While both countries are officially committed to press freedom, both have also experienced tensions around the role of the press in their democracies.
This lesson features a podcast interview with Sam Fleming, Director of News and Programming at WBUR, a Boston public radio station; and Judith February, a columnist, political commentator, and civil society advocate in Capetown, South Africa. By listening to the podcast and discussing reflection questions, students explore the essential and reciprocal relationship between a free press and responsible citizenship. Optional extensions offer resources for developing critical media literacy in students.
- 1 Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Dr. James Currie (January 28, 1786) Lipscomb & Bergh 18:ii.
- 2 Address by Nelson Mandela to the International Press Institute Congress, February 14, 1994.
- 3 “Press Freedom’s Dark Horizon,” Freedom House, accessed May 30, 2017.
- 4 “Freedom of the Press 2016,” Freedom House, accessed May 30, 2017.