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Declines in press freedom threaten democracy

“The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” —US Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in New York Times Co. vs. United States (1971)


Anis Chowdhury | November 13, 2019 00:00:00


Freedom of the press is a pillar of every democracy in which the government is accountable to the people. It was no coincidence that Adolf Hitler’s reign of terror began with the end of press freedom.

Press freedom around the world is more fragile now than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Journalists increasingly face obstruction, hostility and violence as they investigate and report on behalf of the public.

The trend is connected to a global decline in democracy itself. According to Freedom in the World 2019 report of the Freedom House, democracy is undergoing an “alarming” decline across the world as a growing number of countries move towards authoritarian rule.

The erosion of press freedom is both a symptom of and a contributor to the breakdown of other democratic institutions and principles, a fact that makes it especially alarming.

Downward spiral globally

Freedom and the Media 2019: A Downward Spiral of the Freedom House documents the following key findings:

* Freedom of the media has been deteriorating around the world over the past decade.

* In some of the most influential democracies in the world, populist leaders have overseen concerted attempts to throttle the independence of the media sector.

* While the threats to global media freedom are real and concerning in their own right, their impact on the state of democracy is what makes them truly dangerous.

The situation for bloggers and citizen journalists — who are one of the few sources of independent information in many places — has deteriorated to the point of being life threatening.

According to the UNESCO observatory of killed journalists, 881 journalists were killed worldwide during 2010-2019. Figures from the Committee to Protect Journalists show that the number of journalists killed in retaliation for their work nearly doubled in 2019 from the previous year. In total, 1,340 people have died doing the job since 1992 – when the records began – and 860 of those have been murdered. The gruesome killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi has epitomised the height of violence against journalists.

Hundreds of journalists jailed globally becomes the new normal, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The number of journalists jailed for their work continued to increase, from 81 in 2000 to 251 in 2018. It was 259 in 2016 and 262 in 2017.

Physical violence against journalists and arbitrary or unjust detentions are not the only threat. Politicians in power are attacking the media as “fake news”. Their attack on media is much more than simply a form of distraction from their own lies or failures. It is a long-term strategy designed to undermine the credibility of the press, which is likely to uncover their corruption, or machinations of the system for personal benefits, and hence hold them accountable. This is what makes them fundamental for democratic governance.

There has been relentless extension of national security laws at the expense of basic rights – a trend that accelerated, especially since 11 September 2001 event. Regressive legislations are seriously eroding media freedom in the name of national security. States are seeking to block Internet sites and social media platforms, and the independence and sustainability of public broadcasters is being increasingly undermined.

Journalists’ ability to protect sources is in jeopardy, and laws that threaten to criminalise journalists’ work continue to exert a major chilling effect. According to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the state of journalism in more than three-quarters of the 180 countries is either problematic, difficult or very serious. Only 24% of countries are classified as good or fairly good.

Ownership concentration

Media freedom is also threatened by rising ownership concentration. Andrew Bibby, in a report for the Union Network International (UNI), assesses the current situation, and provides evidence to argue that the growing concentration of media ownership is a major issue of concern for wider society. Bibby clearly shows that there is now a small number of large media companies, and a small number of individuals within these companies wield considerable power.

Media concentration is a threat to creativity, diversity and pluralism. The power of large media corporations has never been higher. Media empires can sway public opinion and endanger democracy.

Digital revolution

The digital revolution has presented opportunities and led to accelerated media convergence. However, the rise of the national security state and the proliferation of new surveillance technologies have created new challenges to media freedom and pluralism. In the face of a growing surveillance apparatus, journalists must go to new lengths to protect sources and, by extension, the public’s right to know.

Fundamental principles such as net neutrality and appropriate allocation of spectrum resources are crucial to ensuring citizens can continue to enjoy free access to a wide range of views and content.

Co-option

Governments are also co-opting journalists to tell their stories. In “The Illiberal Toolbox for Co-opting the Media,” Zselyke Csaky analyses legal, extra-legal, and economic tactics that democratically elected but illiberal leaders use to co-opt the media. She also describes the conditions that make media environments vulnerable to illiberal co-optation.

In “Why Social Media Are Still Worth Saving,” Adrian Shahbaz analyses how authoritarians and propagandists manipulate digital media to undermine democracy, and proposes a new partnership between tech companies and news media to support high-quality journalism.

What is at stake?

Media freedom and pluralism are at the heart of any democracy. They embrace editorial independence, the free flow of ideas, and public access to a wide range of information sources and views. Media independence and transparency are indispensable preconditions and essential safeguards of a well-functioning democracy.

Freedom of expression is an anchor of democracy; it leads to well-informed public opinion, and guarantees that journalists can feel free to carry out their work to the highest standards. A free media functions as a watchdog that can investigate and report on government wrongdoing, and thereby enhances democratic accountability as well as governance quality. It is also a vibrant marketplace of ideas, a vehicle for ordinary citizens to express themselves and gain exposure to a wide range of information and opinions.

As Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has documented, famines do not occur in democracies. “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,” he wrote in Democracy as Freedom. This happens because, in a well-functioning democracy, media can quickly expose the situation, and democratic governments ‘”have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes.”

Researchers have also found a ‘good’ correlation between press freedom and the different dimensions of development, poverty and governance. This happens as a free press scrutinises government policies, improves transparency of government actions and holds the government accountable, thereby enhancing quality of governance.

Freedom of expression must be defended

As Maria Leissner, former Secretary-General of the Community of Democracy noted, “To express one’s opinions freely without risk of persecution is a core human right protected by international law and a crucial component of peaceful and inclusive societies… Restrictions on the space in which journalists and the media operate within cannot go unaddressed. The democratic community must increase eorts to defend and enable press freedoms.”

A free and independent media to keep the population informed and hold leaders to account is as crucial for a strong and sustainable democracy as free and fair elections. Freedom of expression, including the right to information must be granted in full.

Along with other indicators of good governance, press freedom creates an environment favourable for sustainable development. Without a free and independent media, citizens cannot make informed decisions about how they are ruled; and the abuse of power, which is all but inevitable in any society, cannot be exposed and corrected.

Freedom of expression and press freedom, therefore, must be defended for the sake of meaningful democratic governance and sustainable development.

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Dr Anis Chowdhury, Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University and the University of New South Wales (Australia), held senior United Nations positions in New York and Bangkok. anis.z.chowdhury@gmail.com


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