Protestors hold up pictures of journalists during a controversial trial in Istanbul. Photo:

The free press is under threat—and now has a new, dangerous enemy

Authoritarian leaders around the world are increasingly confident of their rule
August 12, 2017

Journalism is in a delicate state in the world. The time at the turn of the century when it seemed to be secure in freedom, is gone. As June Jodie Ginsberg, the CEO of Index on Censorship, has observed “it does seem as if the world is more authoritarian now.”

Authoritarian leaders are increasingly confident of their rule, and the subaltern role of their news media. As democratic states in Europe and America weaken, they assert more firmly that journalism is too important to be left to journalists, since politicians can better judge what information and opinions will secure good government.

It is the autocratic leader, in large command of what can and cannot be said and shown—while providing the most engrossing, patriotic and popular entertainment—who now provides a template for despots and semi-democrats. It’s a style honed in Russia and China, applied in Turkey, Egypt and Ethiopia, elements of which are adopted in Poland, Hungary and Slovakia. In democratic states a weak but electorally-effective form was pioneered under Silvio Berlusconi’s Italian premierships in the 1990s and 2000s.

In August 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping, told the National Propaganda and Ideology Work Conference that workers in propaganda and ideology—that is, the media—had become lax: “they speak without restraint... cheered on by hostile forces.”

Western countries, he said, “flaunt ‘press freedom,’ but in fact, they also have ideological baselines… there are no completely independent media.” This is a correct observation: but one which neglects that independence from state and government is the indispensable baseline for a journalism which can claim autonomy and rights.

After his speech, Chinese journalism, which in the early 2000s had developed (gently) critical editorialising and done several important investigations, was buttoned up. So, in different ways, was journalism in other autocratic states. Russian President Vladimir Putin progressively took over the oligarchic broadcast channels and brought the main newspapers and magazines into line—while leaving some space for impoverished liberal media, exhibits to quieten critics.

In Turkey, news media largely controlled by different industrial groups, some allied to the exiled imam Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, allegedly the inspiration of last year’s coup—have been either closed or disciplined to obedience. In Egypt, after the assumption of power (by acclamation) by Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2014, a group of editors and television presenters—in the wake of a terrorist attack killing around 30 Egyptian military—gathered to agree that their media become “tools of the state” against terrorism.

Many Middle Eastern journalists, especially in Turkey, hate this, but not all yearn to breathe free. Journalists in authoritarian societies often yearn to be secure, and are conscious that their audiences usually prefer state-sanctioned media with upbeat, patriotic messages to the discomfiting, at times hyper-critical broadcasts and publications.

This isn’t the case in India, the world’s largest democracy: the television news is famously raucous and aggressive, the newspapers diverse in their views. Media do far too little reporting on the vast poverty and discrimination which blights hundreds of millions of lives, but are relatively independent. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, himself from a low-caste family, appears, however, less concerned by the non-coverage of social misery as by independence.

In early June, Central Bureau of Investigation officers raided the home and offices of Prannoy and Radika Roy, founders of the first independent news station and frequent critics of Modi, alleging loan defaults. The channel had aired a documentary, in Hindi, a few days before, claiming that Delhi’s news media now worked in an “atmosphere of fear” because of government pressure.

In the west, national institutions like the UK’s Guardian, France’s Le Monde and the Boston Globe—all loaded with honours—struggle under large losses or, like the Washington Post with Jeff Bezos of Amazon, find billionaires willing to support them. Public appetite for informed news and comment on Trump’s presidency have buoyed the circulations of the Post and the New York Times: but the longer-term trends of falling print advertising, with digital advertising now going largely to Google and Facebook, remain.

And now, unprecedentedly, there is a new, dangerous enemy for press freedom. The United States has always been an inspiration to those who wish for, and try to practice, an independent, enquiring journalism. While living in Russia as the Soviet Union ended and in the first years of the post Soviet states, I was struck by how often journalists there, trying to orient themselves, turned to the US example—as they have in China, in the Middle East, in Africa and elsewhere.

Today, Trump’s uniquely unwavering focus has been his commitment to destroy trust in the US news media. He is deliberately tearing at one of the greatest institutions of US “soft power.” This, like all of his moves, is designed to bolster his own position: but it attacks a journalistic culture which has been, at its frequent best, the most prominent example in the world of freedom combined with civic responsibility. The greatest institutions of US journalism are rising to the challenge. So should we all.