Democratically elected leaders borrow from the anti-press playbook of dictators and tyrants.
By The Editorial Board – The New York Times
The editorial board represents the opinions of the board, its editor and the publisher. It is separate from the newsroom and the Op-Ed section.
A free and unfettered news media has long been anathema to authoritarian rulers, but even George Orwell might not have anticipated that some of the most unscrupulous assaults on press freedoms would one day be perpetrated by democratically elected governments. Witness these recent events:
Earlier this week Maria Ressa, founder of an online news site critical of the Philippine government of President Rodrigo Duterte, turned herself in to face charges of tax evasion on her return from receiving an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Mr. Duterte has long harassed Ms. Ressa and her start-up, Rappler, and other independent media critical of his murderous campaign against drug dealers and drug users. At one news conference, Mr. Duterte warned a Rappler reporter not to come to his hometown, Davao City, because “something bad will happen to you.” Davao is thought to be home to the most vicious of Philippine vigilante bands, the Davao Death Squad.
The week before, more than 400 news outlets in Hungary, including the leading online newspaper and all remaining regional newspapers, were “donated” by their owners — many of them oligarchs loyal to Prime Minister Viktor Orban who had been systematically buying up outlets — to a foundation run by Mr. Orban’s cronies. Poland under the nationalist Law and Justice Party has been stymied by civil society in its more brazen attempts to emulate Hungary, but the public broadcaster has become something of an ideological mouthpiece.
The infamous state-ordered murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of the Saudi crown prince, is in a class of its own, and Saudi Arabia is emphatically not a democracy, illiberal or otherwise. But President Trump, the leader of the world’s premier democracy, has added to his other trespasses against the press by refusing to criticize the kingdom and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite evidence that the powerful heir must have been behind the grisly execution.
President Trump’s own assault on the press includes his trademark dismissal of any reporting that riles him as “fake news” and his inflammatory depiction of the news media as the “enemy of the people.” His attempt to strip White House press credentials from CNN’s Jim Acosta on the phony pretext that he had “laid hands” on a White House intern may not be in the same league as the exploits of other autocratic press bashers — the credentials were restored by a judge in a heartening affirmation of America’s legal institutions and the First Amendment — but the president’s disdain for fact, immunity to shame and inability to stomach criticism have offered solace to illiberal comrades.
Some of the most ardent hand-wringing over Mr. Khashoggi’s murder was in Turkey, where he was killed. “The fate of Khashoggi is a test for the whole world with respect to freedom of expression,” tweeted former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Yet Turkey, under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, holds the world record for throwing journalists in prison.
The rise of democratically elected leaders who seek to subjugate the media to their emergent cults of personality, combined with veteran masters of repression like China or Russia, has made life far more difficult for honest journalists and news outlets. But even for the old pros, times have changed.
Back in the days when news was printed on paper or broadcast over radio and television, authoritarian powers like the Soviet Union and its ideological replicants simply seized control of the outlets, censored what came in from outside and repressed anyone who spoke out. The methods were crudely effective, but they also endowed smuggled-in news with the credibility of the forbidden.
New information technologies — the internet, social media, smartphone cameras — were supposed to overcome censorship. They did, but they also armed autocrats with new ways to undermine the credibility of honest news. Fake news — the really fake kind — has proliferated, along with notions such as “alternative facts.”
When they founded Rappler in 2012, Ms. Ressa and her colleagues thought they would use the internet to give the powerless a voice. Instead, the internet in the Philippines of Mr. Duterte has become an outlet for threats and deceit, and much of Rappler’s efforts have been dedicated to uncovering the lies planted on the web by the president’s allies and pointing them out to Facebook, the source of almost all internet news in the Philippines. It’s a losing battle — false news is so rooted in the Philippines that one Facebook executive has called it “patient zero” in the global misinformation epidemic.
And yet Ms. Ressa fights on, as do reporters the world over, exposing abuse, lies and false reporting. That’s the good news.