Thinking about World Press Freedom Day earlier this month, I found myself asking: why does it matter? One of the key messages of this annual event is that freedom of the press, and by extension, expression, is more than just an important right. It is also central to creating informed, open societies.

An informed society is one where citizens have the resources, education and skills to access and participate in the free flow of reliable and useful information through a diverse range of platforms and media organizations that empower them to make considered decisions about their economic, social and political lives.

Like so many of today’s challenges, it’s easier to identify examples of what isn’t working than what is. Every year, organizations like Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders release statistics and examples of governments that are clamping down on free speech, or placing restrictions on expression. In much of their research, there is a correlation between dictatorial or authoritarian regimes and a lack of open discussion.

And yet even in supposedly more liberal countries, freedom of speech does not guarantee a properly informed society. Social media provides a platform on which anyone can share their views, but recent cases have shown that this isn’t always a good thing. Just look at the aftermath of the Boston bombings, where false information was spreading across Twitter, and crowd sourcing websites like Reddit identified innocent people as criminals. Soon after, the Associated Press Twitter feed was hacked, causing a stock market fall after pranksters announced an attack on President Obama.

It’s clear, then, that having the right resources and access to information is still not enough for an informed society to flourish. People need to have the skills to be able to navigate this new media landscape. How do we stay informed in a world where our traditional media and tools for doing so are declining or even collapsing? Conversely, how can we exploit the new media, and capitalize on its promise to keep societies better informed? What should governments, corporations, civil society and the media industries themselves do?

Ultimately, an integrated approach will be needed, since every stakeholder stands to benefit from a truly informed society. There are five dimensions and corresponding principles for achieving an open and informed world.

  1. Access: Governments should take all possible steps to ensure that their citizens have access to a rich and diverse variety of media
  2. Education: Governments need to use digital media to remodel pedagogy in their schools and other educational institutions
  3. Media literacy: Leaders and institutions should promote media literacy to ensure that citizens have access to complete, reliable and pertinent information, and know how to use such information for their own benefit
  4. Transparency: We must ensure freedom of information through legislation, regulation and education, and by partnering with public and private sector organizations to encourage openness
  5. Privacy: Governments and business should understand that the need for security and profit must be tempered by the need for freedom, rooted in individual privacy

These guidelines are not the silver bullet. But they might be enough to get us started.

Author: Don Tapscott is the Inaugural Fellow of the Martin Prosperity Institute and Adjunct Professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto and is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Informed Societies

Image: A video camera is seen in Tokyo REUTERS/Toru Hanai