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Editorials Why a free press is democracy’s necessary nuisance

On World Press Freedom Day, we have an awkward admission to make: The free press can be a real nuisance. When it’s doing its job, the press is almost always upsetting somebody.

As Barack Obama put it, when on the subject of his teenage cannabis use he was asked whether he had inhaled: That is the point.

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A free press can definitely be a nuisance to those in power. For example, reporters may have lobbed softballs about youthful indiscretions at Mr. Obama, but the media also grilled him about his use of drones in the War on Terror, delved deep into the promise and problems of Obamacare and scrutinized every move his administration made.

Shining light into the corridors of power, from Parliament Hill to city hall, is necessary work in a democracy.

It is also often unpopular work. Partisans almost always resent the scrutiny being applied to their side; at other times, people are simply reacting to the impertinence required of the profession. The reporter is taught to break every rule of social intercourse ingrained since kindergarten: Mind your own business, avoid conversations about money, don’t talk to strangers.

Journalists often break all of the above in one go. They are liable to ask people they’ve never met where they’re going on vacation, or how many homes they own.

In the lifespan of the current federal Parliament, journalists have asked these questions of the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister, respectively. The government initially decried the questions as pointless intrusions of privacy. But the upshot turned out to be that the PM had vacationed at the private island of a billionaire philanthropist whose foundation was registered to lobby the federal government, and the trip broke conflict-of-interest rules.

Meanwhile, it turned out that Finance Minister Bill Morneau was a partner in a corporation that owned his family’s Provençal villa, a fact only disclosed to the Ethics Commissioner after nosy reporters discovered it in corporate records.

Three cheers for being a nuisance.

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In Canada, we are lucky that most members of the press can expect no more in retribution for their work than an angry e-mail. Elsewhere, the price of reporting is often far greater. The Saudi Arabian government reminded us of that when it killed Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi last October.

Mr. Khashoggi was not alone in his fate. Around the world, 11 journalists have been killed in the course of doing their work this year, according to the organization Reporters Without Borders. More than 300 are currently imprisoned. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the world champion of jailing journalists is, as it has been for many years, Turkey.

In some countries, the press is treated not as a nuisance, but as a threat. That’s because the people who rule those places see truth as a threat. Governments tend to suppress the press in proportion to how corrupt and illegitimate they are. Any list of regimes that persecute journalists could double as a rogues gallery of autocrats, peopled with Putins, Erdogans and Dutertes.

Liberal democracies, in contrast, enjoy a high degree of press freedom. Free speech is a constitutional right and access-to-information laws prod governments to let the sun shine in. But in recent years, the way some politicians speak about the fourth estate has taken on a menacing tone more commonly found in unfree societies.

Donald Trump is of course the chief purveyor of authoritarian slurs against the practice of journalism. His refrain of “fake news” goes beyond a politician’s usual media criticism by insisting that the whole idea of journalistic objectivity is a con. His charge that the news media, with the exception of a few friendly outlets, is “the enemy of the people” is more alarming still, with its echoes of fascist rhetoric.

Like all human institutions, journalism can make no claims of infallibility. Like the rest of the human race, journalists may at times be subject to biases or blind spots. And yes, they sometimes make mistakes.

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But without a group of people committed to the task of asking bothersome questions of elected officials, corporations, bureaucrats and others in positions of power, it’s hard to see how successful democratic government – government by an informed citizenry – is possible. In a free society, the free press will always be a nuisance, and a necessary nuisance at that.

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