LOOK NO further than Manila this week for evidence that autocrats around the world are reading the same handbook — and learning new tricks from it. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has described as a “fake news outlet” an aggressive online news organization, Rappler, and the nation’s Securities and Exchange Commission has revoked its license on a very thin pretext. This is an unwarranted strike at press freedom that should alarm everyone worried about the contagion of illiberalism.
Rappler, a pioneering news site that has been at the forefront of chronicling Mr. Duterte’s campaign of extrajudicial killings of drug suspects and abusers, was founded in 2012. A look at the home page this week suggests the unstinting coverage it has championed, such as an investigation into the award of a navy contract by the Duterte government, which prompted the president’s derisive “fake news” charge.
The Philippine constitution requires mass media companies to be wholly owned by Filipinos. The SEC complaint is that Rappler received investment from the Omidyar Network, a fund created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who is not Filipino. The news organization denies wrongdoing and says Omidyar’s investment does not convey ownership. Rappler says this is the first time ever that the SEC has ruled this way.
What’s worrisome about Mr. Duterte’s attack is not only the use of government to close down a pathbreaking news source but also his deployment of the delegitimization that lies behind the moniker “fake news.” This is a twisted way to undermine confidence and trust in the news itself, a tactic now being widely exploited by rulers who do not want to be bound by the norms of democracy and rule of law. Look at the two large practitioners of these methods, Russia and China. They have come up with subtle methods to undermine confidence in the news media, such as placing news-media ownership in the hands of friendly oligarchs and businessmen, and giving private orders to newsrooms about what can be reported and what cannot. A third tactic: When confronted with discomfiting reporting, or when facing a news media that attempts to hold them to account, the illiberal tyrants shout “fake news” so often that people grow weary and confused about what is true and what is not. Trust is destroyed, and the autocrats proceed unharnessed and unashamed.
It is increasingly clear that the dictator’s handbook threatens not only closed societies. The same tactics are flooding into open democracies, which are often vulnerable by their very openness. President Trump’s use of “fake news” shows not that the United States is overflowing with untrustworthy news but that it is possible for a leader to use smokescreens and kick up dust to the point where it obscures truth. Are other authoritarians learning from Mr. Trump, or is he learning from them? It is hard to tell some days. In the Philippines, the attack on Rappler should be rescinded. A free press cannot be allowed to be smothered by the fog of an authoritarian leader shouting “fake news.”