Freedom House is out with its annual press freedom report. The portrait is grim:
According to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World data, media freedom has been deteriorating around the world over the past decade, with new forms of repression taking hold in open societies and authoritarian states alike. The trend is most acute in Europe, previously a bastion of well-established freedoms, and in Eurasia and the Middle East, where many of the world’s worst dictatorships are concentrated.
The report explains that press freedom is critical to democracy and if “democratic powers cease to support media independence at home and impose no consequences for its restriction abroad, the free press corps could be in danger of virtual extinction.” And the result will be loss of civil liberties and democratic government itself.
One reason the report is so alarming is that it seems so familiar. “The problem has arisen in tandem with right-wing populism, which has undermined basic freedoms in many democratic countries,” the report says. “Populist leaders present themselves as the defenders of an aggrieved majority against liberal elites and ethnic minorities whose loyalties they question, and argue that the interests of the nation — as they define it — should override democratic principles like press freedom, transparency, and open debate.”
When you look at Hungary and Austria you can appreciate how disturbingly similar the United States’ situation is at present. These regimes cultivate pro-government media, which act as propaganda outlets for the elected leader, reinforcing his falsehoods and demonizing opponents. Actual independent outlets are considered “elites” who fail to represent the will of the masses, which only the leader can channel. Concentrate power, demonize the real press and cultivate state press: “Common methods include government-backed ownership changes, regulatory and financial pressure, and public denunciations of honest journalists. Governments have also offered proactive support to friendly outlets through measures such as lucrative state contracts, favorable regulatory decisions, and preferential access to state information. The goal is to make the press serve those in power rather than the public.” Sound familiar?
Freedom House bluntly explains: " Although key news organizations remain strong and continue to produce vigorous reporting on those in office, President Donald Trump’s continual vilification of the press has seriously exacerbated an ongoing erosion of public confidence in the mainstream media," the report states. “Among other steps, the president has repeatedly threatened to strengthen libel laws, revoke the licenses of certain broadcasters, and damage media owners’ other business interests.”
The threat in the United States shouldn’t be exaggerated, but Trump’s effect outside America is cause for real concern. (“The US constitution provides robust protections against such actions, but President Trump’s public stance on press freedom has had a tangible impact on the global landscape. Journalists around the world now have less reason to believe that Washington will come to their aid if their basic rights are violated.”)
Freedom House’s recommendations seem self-evident — condemn violations of press freedom, make press freedom a factor in diplomatic relations with illiberal regimes and educate the public about the importance of a free press. (“Stand up publicly for the value of a free press, and support civic education that will inform the next generation. Press freedom is one of the most fundamental pillars of American democracy, and constitutional protections in the United States are stronger than in any other country in the world.”)
With every president prior to the current one, we could count on the United States to be a bold defender of free speech not a cheerleader for repression or an excuse-maker for violence against reporters (as Trump has been with the Saudis’ murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi).
In that respect the most positive step toward reversing a decline in press freedom would be throwing out the current president, by impeachment or at the ballot box. So long as Trump threatens retaliation against press critics and claims any negative story is “fake news,” a free press in the United States and abroad is at risk.
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