Today’s leaders are too clever to simply abolish freedom of the press. Instead, they use a variety of tricks to control their media critics in subtler ways. The legal claims to a free press may remain, and overt censorship may not be visible. But there are still plenty of ways to intimidate, to silence and to otherwise prevent journalists from doing their job as watchdogs over the powerful.
Just days after the White House yanked Acosta’s White House “hard pass,” prosecutors in the Philippines announced they would charge the independent website Rappler and its chief, my former CNN colleague Maria Ressa, with tax evasion. The move would not only threaten the survival of a news site that has remained defiantly willing to criticize President Rodrigo Duterte and his antidrug campaign — which has left untold thousands dead without due process — but it also could potentially bring up to 10 years in prison for the site’s founder and executive editor.
Ressa, who has become a hero of the journalism community, was in Washington when the news came, receiving the annual Knight International Journalism Award. The government move, she said, “is meant for maximum impact and intimidation.” Ressa, Rappler and their lawyers have been battling government efforts to shut them down for many months.
Duterte, one of the autocratic leaders Trump has praised, has turned a country that once enjoyed a vibrant free press into a wasteland of intimidation. “Just because you’re a journalist,” he has warned, “you’re not exempted from assassination.”
Assassination is the crude weapon of other leaders, too. Journalists are often murdered in many countries. Saudi agents killed Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the regime, while he was in Turkey. That gave Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a cause to boost his standing, hypocritically appearing as a defender of journalists even though few leaders have suppressed the media more effectively than he has.
In addition to imprisoning more journalists than any other country, Turkey has also applied pressure on businesses as part of Erdogan’s crackdown on the press. In March, the last major holdout fell when the Dogan group sold its media properties, including top Turkish newspapers. Before agreeing to sell, Aydin Dogan, a champion of liberal secularism, was harassed by prosecutors and tax authorities much like Ressa has been. Some said his choices were to sell or go to prison.
In Russia, some journalists critical of the president have died under mysterious circumstances, and many others have faced intimidation from tax authorities and regulators. At the same time that Ressa and Acosta were feeling the wrath of their presidents, in Moscow the liberal New Times came under assault from tax authorities. Incredibly, it managed to fight back and overcome the government’s latest attack. A local court fined the New Times 22 million rubles ($330,000), which the website called “the biggest fine in the history of the Russian media.” The new fine seemed an insurmountable obstacle to survival — but then the editors launched a crowdsourcing effort. The drive raised far more than its target, at last count bringing in the equivalent of about $400,000. Editor Yevgenia Albats exulted, “Russian liberals are alive and battling!”
Journalists are waging valiant battles against other illiberal rulers in Eastern European countries, where democracy is gradually fading. In Hungary, as in Turkey, independent media is steadily falling into the hands of supporters of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. State media, meanwhile, is little more than a government mouthpiece.
What used to be a lively news landscape, counting hundreds of independent outlets, is now almost completely controlled by Orban supporters. But those who survive are putting up a vigorous fight. Magyar Hang (Hungarian Voice) had to find a printer in Slovakia because locals refused to the get involved. Even readers, they say, are afraid to subscribe.
Still, it continues its work. So does Atlatszo, an investigative site brimming with impressive scoops.
Even so, most of the news now consumed by Hungarians is gushingly favorable to those in power. And that, too, is the case in Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries where autocracy is entrenched, or where the rise to power of authoritarian leaders has been followed by those leaders’ efforts to smother the free press.
It is in that context that we should look at what Trump has tried to accomplish by targeting Acosta and CNN. There is much in Trump’s thinking that overlaps with autocracy-minded leaders in other countries, and his efforts to intimidate and silence his critics are of a piece with what is happening elsewhere. The push to prevent the White House from dictating who is allowed in the press room, and the president’s insults against journalists who ask questions he doesn’t like, are all part of that trend. In the United States, the process is in its early stages. There’s still time to stop it before it inflicts irreparable damage.