Without a free press and freedom of speech, our government would control what you see, hear, read

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

In 1989, when the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain was still hanging over Eastern Europe, although beginning to unravel, I traveled to Budapest, Hungary, and one of my goals was to talk to local journalists there.

It took some doing to even be allowed in one of the government-owned daily papers. I used a friend of a friend as a contact who had a journalist friend, and we made an appointment to visit.

He was friendly but standoffish, very careful with his words as we engaged in some very basic conversation about the mechanics of a newspaper. I didn’t want to spring on him questions about censorship right away.

He had his own office and a typewriter in one corner. He wrote local stories, mostly human interest. He showed me some of his clips. He was a good writer. The office set-up surprised me because I quit writing on a typewriter in college. By 1989, newsrooms were computerized, and writers zapped their stories to the editorial desk.

After we got more comfortable around each other, I started to change the subject.

“How do you know what to write, how to write it?” I asked.

“The same way you do. I find a story, or it’s assigned, and I work on it,” he replied.

But it was not the same way. We both knew that. The differences were obvious. I was working for the privately owned Houston Chronicle, and he was writing for the government daily. There were not that many – if any – things in common in our job descriptions.

But I could not say that. He knew that I was going to write about my experiences. I pushed a little harder. I wanted to get some clues, direct or indirect, of how he handled working for a government propaganda publication.

“But how do you know how far you can go?” I asked him.

“We know what’s allowed and what’s not. We self-censor most of the time,” he replied. “Just like you journalists do in the West.”

I didn’t know if I could go beyond that. He was a good communist, and there was really no reason for him to take any chances by telling a reporter from the United States anything that was outside the norm.

Why should he? He had a good government job, extra privileges, and all he had to do was stay within the lines. Getting ahead in a place like that did not include rocking the boat.

My job at the Chronicle was to rock the boat. The harder the better. My job was to take what government officials said, and then find out the truth, whether they liked it or not. That’s every journalist’s job.

My paycheck came from a private company, not from the government. The only interplay between a daily newspaper and the government they cover should be one of cordiality and adversity, always checking out what is said and why something is being done.

I did not tell my communist counterpart any of this back then because it would have been a waste of time.

Our free press is not perfect, and in reality, it is not totally free. But it must remain free of governmental control. Freedom of the press and free speech guarantees our freedom.

No matter what you are reading, watching or listening to, make sure that you can continue doing it without anyone limiting your rights. No matter what your political views are, a free press is essential to our democracy.

If you don’t like what one paper prints, read one more and compare their views and how they approach a particular subject. Same with TV channels, radio stations and the social media.

We live in a great democracy and in a great country. Let’s keep it that way. The alternative is not acceptable.

Freedom of the press is the right to circulate opinions in print without censorship by the government. Americans enjoy freedom of the press under the First Amendment to the Constitution, which states: ‘Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.