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What threatens press freedom today?

May 05,2021 - Last updated at May 05,2021

BERLIN — Donald Trump’s presidency was bookended by the White House pushing “alternative facts” about the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration at the US Capitol and his violent supporters scrawling “Murder the Media” on the Capitol’s doors. While Trump is gone (for now), professional media remain at risk — and not just in the United States. The watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) considers the state of press freedom “good” in a mere 12 countries — fewer than ever before.

The most obvious threat to press freedom around the world emanates from authoritarian regimes, some of which have doubled down on restricting the press to prevent reporting on political leaders’ failings during the pandemic. In Hungary, which slipped to 92nd place in RSF’s world ranking of press freedom, from 89th place last year, the government has threatened media outlets with prosecution for “blocking” the government’s efforts to fight COVID. Nurses and doctors are barred from speaking to independent journalists.

Authoritarian regimes are also refining less obvious techniques to limit media pluralism. They withhold state advertising (which has often increased during the pandemic) from outlets that are critical of them. They enable businessmen friendly to the regime to buy up media, as has happened in Turkey, where construction oligarchs who have benefited from the recent building boom are repaying political debts to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by taking over independent newspapers.

Although the factors giving rise to regimes like those in Hungary and Turkey may be very different, the resulting patterns of governance often look similar, because regimes are learning from one another. And that fact calls into doubt a typical post-Cold War illusion among liberals: Not that History ended in 1989, but that only democracies are capable of learning. 

Democracies make mistakes all the time, but their singular virtue, according to a standard liberal narrative, is that they alone can correct and learn from their mistakes. By contrast, authoritarian regimes supposedly cannot and will stagnate, if not collapse like the Soviet Union. While authoritarian regimes are hardly invincible, it would be naive to think that their demise is inevitable because they cut themselves off from information and from learning. In fact, they are constantly developing novel policies, such as facially neutral laws that de facto serve to repress civil society.

Where right-wing populists are not in government yet, they have become skillful at building up counterpublics online, with participants accusing journalists of being biased and pressing them to prove their professionalism by giving maximum attention to the topics preferred by the right — and, less obviously, to practice strict “both-sides” reporting on every issue. The imperative of proving objectivity by covering all politically relevant perspectives neutrally works reasonably well in functioning democracies. But when parties are turning against democratic principles, such reporting becomes their helper.

The US is only the most obvious example in this regard. “Polarisation” is often presented as a symmetrical phenomenon. One does not have to like US Senator Bernie Sanders or Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s policy ideas, but they are hardly figures engaged in undermining democracy. Republicans who refuse to recognise the 2020 presidential election outcome and enact measures to suppress voting really are seeking to undermine democracy; to equate the sides — often with reference to the horseshoe theory of les extrêmes se touchent — can seem neutral. But, as the media critic Jay Rosen has pointed out, to present an asymmetrical political reality as a symmetrical one is, in fact, a distortion.

Journalists may no longer be what the British journalist W.T. Stead in the late nineteenth century called “uncrowned kings of an educated democracy”. But they are learning to draw a line between ordinary policy disagreement and threats to the basic freedoms on which their own work depends (even if that line will often be contestable).

In turn, audiences are learning that assessing media is a complex challenge: An outlet might be impartial, but not be independent; an owner could change things at a whim. Conversely, it can be fine for a newspaper to be engaged in what Timothy Garton Ash has called “transparent partiality”: Interpreting the news from a socialist viewpoint, for instance, was perfectly acceptable for dailies owned by social democratic parties, as long as it was clear to audiences what they were getting and why.

It is precisely such transparency that is missing from large media platforms today: Everyone from ordinary users to highly competent researchers are left in the dark about how proprietary algorithms sort people into groups and prioritise particular messages. This should not lead us to condemn new forms of self-expression such as social media. Instead, we should be sensitive to how authoritarians use these platforms to simulate support and repress dissent. 1

Some platforms are based on a business model best described as “incitement capitalism”: Users are kept engaged by riling them up with ever more extreme content. Hate pays, as “engagement” can be surveilled and attention sold to advertisers. Hate might also form publics from which, as the French social theorist Gabriel Tarde observed at the dawn of the twentieth century, radical crowds can emerge.

Such crowds often attack journalists. One reason that democracies like Germany have been downgraded by RSF is not that the government is repressing media, but that professionals reporting on demonstrations against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approach to COVID-19 have met with ever more violence. Of course, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms are not exclusively responsible for causing violent sentiments; but regulating them more strictly is, it appears, now also essential for protecting press freedom.


Jan-Werner Mueller, professor of Politics at Princeton University, is a fellow at the Berlin Institute of Advanced Study and the author of the forthcoming Democracy Rules (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2021).Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.

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