The topic of press freedom is much on the media’s mind as 2018 draws to a close. Much of the U.S. media believes it is suffering through uniquely dark times because President Donald Trump has been fiercely, often hyperbolically, critical of its work.
The October murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey by agents of the Saudi government brought a unified field theory of media oppression into focus: Trump’s comments supposedly signaled to the Saudis, other authoritarian regimes, and extremist groups that violence against reporters has become acceptable, or at least much less outrageous than it used to be.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) made this argument explicitly: “Hostility towards the media is spreading from dictatorships to democracies, encouraged by U.S. President Donald Trump’s and other leaders’ attacks on ‘fake news,’ according to the 2018 World Press Freedom Index.”
The World Press Freedom Index is compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which warned of an “unprecedented level of hostility towards media personnel” and listed the United States as one of the top five most dangerous environments for the first time.
RSF’s bureau director for the United Kingdom, Rebecca Vincent, proposed a softer version of the Trumpian Unified Field Theory of Media Oppression in a June interview. Vincent said global press freedom scores “dropped significantly in 2016” and 2018 brought a noticeable “decline in democracies.”
“There’s a noticeable hostility toward the media that we saw in particular around the U.S. presidential elections and EU referendum in the U.K.,” said Vincent. “The U.S. slipped again this year – it is now 45th out of 180 countries. The U.K. held onto its ranking of 40 but, as I’ve said, that’s not something we should be proud of.”
Vincent said Reporters Without Borders is putting together a “press freedom tracker” especially for the United States to add up “the number of journalists detained, those that have equipment and other things seized, and other violations on press freedoms there.”
“Unfortunately, so far that is not translating into policy decisions to address these very serious issues, and Donald Trump’s media bashing is adding fuel to the fire rather than helping the situation,” she charged.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) found the number of imprisoned reporters at a “historical high” because the United States and its allies are not pressuring authoritarian nations like Turkey, China, and Egypt into “improving the bleak climate for press freedom.” CPJ found the number of journalists killed in “reprisal murders” – i.e. killed explicitly in retaliation for their reporting – nearly doubled in 2018 to reach a three-year high, even as the number of journalists killed in conflict zones reached the lowest level since 2011.
Freedom House warned press freedom is “facing new threats in major democracies as well as in repressive states, where authorities are focusing their efforts on social media and other online platforms after subduing the independence of major print and broadcast outlets.”
The Economist found a way to blame Trump for declining press freedom around the world even while admitting he has not actually done anything to oppress journalists in America:
Even though Donald Trump has frequently demonized the news media as the “enemy of the people”, America’s strong First Amendment and independent courts have prevented him from acting on these illiberal outbursts. Nonetheless, his rhetoric has given succor to autocrats in other countries, who have passed laws outlawing “fake news” and quickly set about persecuting political opponents.
The notion that Donald Trump ushered in the new dark age of media oppression is absurd to anyone who carefully studies the data compiled by these advocacy organizations and looks at the history of press freedom. There is a legitimate discussion to be had about proper interaction between political leaders and the American media, but it should have started a long time ago. Hysterical accusations make it more difficult to examine the real damage to press freedom around the world.
For starters, the tortured efforts to pin the decline of press freedom on Trump produce a good deal of the very same “fake news” that Trump is fond of denouncing. Reporters Without Borders published a report in December that declared America has now become one of the most dangerous environments for journalists in the world, based on one horrible but entirely non-political mass shooting of reporters by a lone maniac and two reporters getting killed by a falling tree during a storm.
Political agendas also go a long way toward explaining the all-consuming focus of the press on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which may or may not have been a “reprisal murder” as the Committee to Protect Journalists defines the term. Khashoggi was a political activist as well as a writer. To date, only his killers know exactly why he was lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and killed.
All but forgotten in the Khashoggi media frenzy are names like Daphne Caruana Galizia of Malta and Jan Kuciak of Slovakia, who unquestionably were murdered because of their reporting. Galizia was killed with a car bomb in broad daylight in late 2017 after digging into organized crime and political corruption. Kuciak and his fiance were shot dead in their home by assailants with ominous links to Slovakian politics. The government of Prime Minister Robert Fico collapsed during anti-corruption protests sparked by the murder.
The focus on Khashoggi also diverted attention from the regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is the worst jailer of journalists on Earth, especially after the 2016 coup attempt against him. Erdogan managed to position himself as a champion of press freedom by declaring his outrage over Khashoggi’s death and hurling accusations at the Saudi monarchy even as Turkish prisons were stuffed with opposition writers and editors. The media does not like complicated narratives, so the oppression of Turkish journalists became a minor footnote in Khashoggi coverage.
Press freedom cannot be measured solely by the physical abuse and persecution of journalists, whose numbers relative to the general population are so small that claiming reprisal killings have “doubled” does not convey an accurate sense of the problem.
Press freedom most certainly cannot be measured by the intensity of media criticism by politicians and members of the public. It is possible for a nation to have an entirely free but almost universally despised media establishment. The United States is very close to reaching that state of affairs, with left-wingers like socialist darling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez railing against sloppy reporting every bit as vigorously as Donald Trump.
Press freedom can also evaporate under regimes that do not invest a great deal of effort in persecuting journalists because the journalists are all agents of the state. The very concept of government-funded media is antithetical to press freedom. Fully state-run media organizations with special privileges or outright monopolies on journalism are even worse.
According to Reporters Without Borders, the five worst countries on the press freedom index are China, Syria, Turkmenistan, Eritrea, and North Korea. There has not been a great deal of movement at the bottom of the list over the past few years. The oppression practiced in those countries cannot be blamed on Donald Trump insulting the media, or anything else happening in American mediaspace.
American “leadership” under Democrat administrations favored by the media did absolutely nothing to improve press freedom in those corners of the world; it merely prompted American journalists to complain about oppression less and refrain from blaming any of it on the U.S. politicians they love. No American politician of any party is going to cajole or inspire China’s Communist tyrants to embrace the free press.
Declining press freedom is one symptom of rising authoritarianism around the world. China actively promotes its ideology and the “Great Firewall” blockading its Internet as a model, arguing that information must be tightly controlled in the interest of social harmony.
The centralization of power found in less blatantly authoritarian countries is also a problem. Centralized power corrupts the media. Reporters become public officials through a revolving door and vice versa. Powerful government agencies manipulate press coverage through strategic leaks. Reporters grow lazy and rely on information from their favorite government contacts instead of investigating matters on their own. The decline in press freedom did not enter a perilous new phase during the 2016 election. It began when most nations of the world became obsessed with centralizing power and imposing political and cultural agendas from the top down.
Information power in the private sector has become concentrated in a few giant corporations, prompting increasingly urgent conversations about censorship and privacy. Press freedom is a subset of free speech, and the Western world is rapidly falling out of love with free speech. It is also vital to ensure free speech does not become a special privilege of duly accredited members of a journalistic guild.
A society with a voracious appetite for speech control will inevitably shackle its press sooner or later, no matter how comfortable media elites might temporarily feel in their privileged positions. No serious discourse about press freedom can ignore the negative impact of “deplatforming,” a strategy of targeted censorship incubated at universities over the past generation and now unleashed into society at large.
Political Islam is another menace to press freedom the media does not like to discuss frankly, which makes Jamal Khashoggi’s lifelong advocacy for Islamism ironic – the “guardian of truth,” as Time hailed him, had no great patience for the kind of unfettered speech and reporting cherished by the Western world. One can scroll quite a long way down the RSF index of press freedom before spotting the first Islamic nation. As political Islam spreads, press freedom inevitably diminishes, because there are speech codes and religious edicts that must be obeyed.
The free press is a valuable crop that grows in the garden of free speech. Poison the soil and the vine will surely wither. Dissent is under assault around the world because obedience is a vital resource for authoritarians, from iron-fisted tyrants to ostensibly compassionate socialists. Outspoken investigative journalism is a vital form of dissent. It is equally unwelcome in anarchic societies where gangs, cults, and extremists threaten and kill journalists who interfere with their quest for power. Whether it be under tyrannical regimes, theocracies, cesspools of corruption, or lawless anarchy, asking questions is dangerous.