It would be easy to focus on the state of American democracy under President Trump, but the more worrying aspect is that the United States’ slide is part of a global trend. In this year’s report, scores dropped for more than half the world’s countries. What Stanford University professor Larry Diamond described 10 years ago as a “democratic recession” shows no sign of ending. The nature of this recession is perhaps best seen by looking at the state of the free press worldwide.
Take Kenya, until very recently considered a hopeful story of democratic progress. Last month, President Uhuru Kenyatta instructed the country’s main television stations not to cover an opposition event, and when they refused, he took them off the air. The government then ignored a court order that the stations be allowed to resume broadcasting.
Kenya’s violations of press freedom are trivial compared with those of Turkey, which is now the world’s foremost jailer of journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Let me underscore that fact. The government that has imprisoned more journalists than any other country is democratically elected. It used to target the media in ways that at least had the veneer of the rule of law, such as issuing a massive tax fine against a critical organization. But that changed after the unsuccessful coup attempt in 2016. One year later, a United Nations report found that at least 177 news outlets had simply been shut down.
It might be possible to brush these stories aside as the inevitable backtracking of developing societies. But what then to make of the turn of events in Hungary and Poland, two countries that wholeheartedly embraced democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union? In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s administration has used a series of clever tactics to muzzle the free press. The government has effectively taken over public broadcasting, exerting pressure on outlets and installing party loyalists in key positions. It has showered friendly media with advertising money and drastically cut advertising spending in critical platforms. After Orban’s government starves, harasses and intimidates independent media, friendly oligarchs buy out the media companies, thus ensuring favorable coverage. Many of these same tactics are now being employed in Poland, which has been a poster child for its stellar political and economic reforms since the fall of communism.
Even in long-established democracies such as Israel and India, we are witnessing systematic efforts to shrink the space and power of independent media that is critical of the government. In Israel, the criminal allegations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which he denies, include his dealings with press barons to ensure favorable coverage. In addition, Netanyahu’s efforts to keep public broadcasting weak have earned him condemnation even from right-wing politicians. In India, Narendra Modi’s government has launched a highly questionable fraud and money laundering case against NDTV, a powerful and persistent critic of some of its policies. Recently, a journalist who exposed an embarrassing vulnerability in a government database was referred to the police rather than hailed as a whistleblower.
More than 20 years ago, in an essay in Foreign Affairs, I warned that the distinctive problem facing the world was “illiberal democracy” — elected governments that systematically abused their power and restricted freedoms. I subsequently worried that America could head down this path. Most people dismissed the danger because American democracy, they said, was robust, with strong institutions that could weather any storm. Press freedom, after all, is guaranteed under the First Amendment. But consider Poland and Hungary, which not only have strong institutions of their own but also exist within the embrace of rule-based European Union institutions that have explicit constitutional protections for freedom of the press.
In just one year in office, Trump has already done damage. Besides denigrating critical media outlets and lauding friendly ones, he has threatened to strengthen libel laws, strip network licenses and tax the owner of a particular newspaper. His administration has blocked the merger of a news organization he considers biased, while facilitating the merger of an organization with more favorable coverage.
“An institution,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “is the lengthened shadow of one man.” Institutions are collections of rules and norms agreed upon by human beings. If leaders attack, denigrate and abuse them, they will be weakened, and this, in turn, will weaken the character and quality of democracy. The American system is stronger than most, but it is not immune to these forces of democratic decay.
This column is adapted from Fareed Zakaria’s Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at the University of California at Los Angeles.
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