This week’s news that the editor of a Philippine news organisation is to be charged with tax evasion has highlighted the increasing trend by some governments of using “brute force and intimidation” and “weaponising” the rule of law against critics in the media.
After the election of Duterte in 2016, Rappler exposed the thousands of extrajudicial killings in the president’s bloody war on drugs. Both Ressa and other journalists at Rappler have also worked to shed light on the army of trolls flooding social media with pro-Duterte propaganda and threatening critics and journalists.
Now Duterte’s government has accused Rappler and its executive editor, Maria Ressa, of failing to pay tax on a 2015 bond sale. Ressa could face up to 10 years in jail if found guilty. The news website denies all charges, which Ressa said were “without basis and clearly politically motivated”.
Duterte has personally attacked Rappler in speeches, and according to reports Ressa and her journalists have received death and rape threats from what has been described as the “pro-Duterte online troll army”. Ressa was reported to have received up to 90 death threats an hour on social media and the news site’s office in Manila has brought in extra security and debated installing bulletproof glass.
Does this sound familiar?
Duterte and other nationalist leaders are borrowing from Donald Trump’s playbook of branding critical stories as “fake news” and rallying offensive public attacks on reporters. Only last week, the U.S. President publicly criticised CNN’s Jim Acosta as a “terrible person” during a Washington news conference. Subsequently, the White House banned Acosta from press briefings and accused him of physically assaulting a White House intern. CNN is now suing the White House alleging that Acosta's First and Fifth Amendment rights are being violated with the ban.
The world’s free press is under major institutional attack in many countries, including India, Turkey, Mexico, Russia, Brazil, Venezuela and Hungary. And while there are judicial checks and balances in mature democracies like the U.S. which offer some protection, these constitutional checks are absent in many democracies.
Journalists are being imprisoned at record numbers around the world. They are regularly threatened, attacked, and killed, which undermines not only their own fundamental human rights, but also the public's right to receive and impart information. The past two years have seen record numbers of journalists imprisoned for their work, yet there has been little pushback and few countries have been held to account for their repressive and regressive practices.
Speaking Truth to Power lies at the very heart of a truly free press. Politicians placed in power over us will always have a unique relationship with the press – one defined by of mutual interest and hostility. Politicians and journalists are locked in a grisly embrace out of necessity. This is not perfect but, like democracy, nobody has come up with a better system. The one non-negotiable factor, however, is that we shall always need a brave, aggressive and free press.
Since the long fight for the freedom of the press in 18th century Europe, the importance of newspapers in informing and reflecting public opinion has become unquestioned. But as the 21st century has progressed something has negatively affected the landscape and technology has played a significant role in undermining press freedom.
Remember the Arab Spring? Back then, social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter were hailed as vehicles for democratic uprisings. Enthusiasts gave TED talks and published in prominent foreign policy journals about how social media could “strengthen civil society and the public sphere”. The internet and the smart phone promised political freedom.
But things are different now. Social media has achieved pariah status. Like Saturn, the internet revolution is devouring its children.
The breadth, variety and impact of the manipulation of social media through the use of paid and unpaid online agents, as well as bots (automated accounts) to post, share, like, quote and re-post content with a view to influencing politics, has never been so polarising.
We seem to live in an increasingly artificial world.
Whether it’s fake Snapchat filters, gamed algorithms, Buzzfeed headlines, fake news, or Artificial Intelligence, our eight second attention spans can no longer be bothered to determine the difference between fact or fiction.
Global press freedom has long been in decline and is now at its lowest point in the past decade. What is new, and especially disquieting, are the mounting pressures on the media in the United States, including sharp attacks on reporters by the Trump administration. This raises the question of whether America will continue to serve as a model for other countries.
The rise of nationalist politics is naturally adversarial to what is commonly perceived as left-wing liberal orientated free press. The leaders of various governments have used President Trump’s “fake news” mantra to delegitimize the press or justify their own crackdowns on press freedom, including in China, Cambodia, Philippines, Syria, and even Poland.
The United States remains an oasis, one of the few places in the world where aggressive journalistic investigation can be practiced with few legal restrictions and little physical danger to reporters. But even here, press freedom has been weakening for some time, well before the inauguration of Donald Trump.
Recent administrations have battled the press, even threatening some reporters with jail time for refusing to identify sources. An entire news organization (Gawker) was wiped out because of a successful lawsuit funded by a billionaire. Meanwhile, outlets that profess to be legitimate news media but are in fact propaganda instruments hold the ideals of neutrality and honest reporting in disdain.
Since Trump’s rise to the presidency, however, matters have taken a turn for the worse. The new White House derides and belittles journalists and media organizations in the hope of undermining the credibility of the press. In so doing, the administration is aggressively promoting the notion that nuance and facts are irrelevant — a staple concept of Russian information warfare.
No president in recent memory has forged a record of such unrelenting scorn for the media, and at such an early stage in an administration, as has President Trump. In so doing, the administration provides welcome ammunition to those in other countries working both to destroy independent media in their own societies and to undermine the principle that freedom of thought and open access to information are the rights of all people, everywhere.
Russia and China represent the vanguard in the war against press freedom worldwide. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have intensified restrictions on their own journalists, leading to a string of murders in Russia and prosecutions in China. It’s harder for the United States to meaningfully condemn such actions if its administration maintains that fact-based journalists are the enemy of the American people.
Authoritarian rulers in countries as diverse as Venezuela, Turkey and Ethiopia are mimicking the Moscow-Beijing playbook, throwing reporters in jail, subjecting them to violence, and suppressing Internet freedom and social media. In all these cases, Trump and his entourage have either remained silent or actively abetted bad behaviour.
The danger is that the new U.S. leadership may, in effect, be offering a license to governments elsewhere that have cracked down on the media as part of a more ambitious authoritarian strategy. There is little doubt that autocrats everywhere are watching what the United States does — and what its new president says. The duty of the press is to hold government accountable, not be its spokesperson or propaganda arm. The government has a duty to respect that obligation.
When political figures in the United States deride the media for helping citizens hold their government accountable, they encourage foreign leaders with autocratic goals to do the same.
When U.S. officials step back from promoting democracy and press freedom, journalists beyond American shores feel the chill. A weakening of press freedom in the United States would be a setback for freedom everywhere.