Democracy and press freedom are not singular, but symbiotic. Both rely — and thrive — on the other. But both are then commensurately vulnerable, too.
They’re a “dual-enforcement mechanism,” said Yascha Mounk, a Harvard lecturer who is a co-author of “The End of the Democratic Century,” one of five deep-dive articles in the recently released edition of Foreign Affairs magazine that asks the provocative, and problematic, question: “Is Democracy Dying?”
The Foreign Affairs focus should serve as a Western wake-up call that authoritarianism — including in ostensible democracies — is on the rise worldwide. So should this week’s release of Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index, which includes the jarring, albeit justified, headline: “Hatred of journalism threatens democracies.”
Across nearly every continent and an increasing number of countries, “[h]ostility towards the media, openly encouraged by political leaders, and the efforts of authoritarian regimes to export their vision of journalism pose a threat to democracies,” the index states.
It’s not just the usual suspects (Russia, China, Turkey, Egypt, et al.) rounding up the usual suspects (bloggers and journalists they routinely jail). Instead, the index states: “More and more democratically elected leaders no longer see the media as part of democracy’s essential underpinning, but as an adversary to which they openly display their aversion.”
Some of the more egregious examples of democratically elected leaders behaving autocratically are in Eastern Europe. In Slovakia, then-Prime Minister Robert Fico called journalists “filthy anti-Slovak prostitutes.” (A Slovak investigative journalist was recently shot and killed just for doing his work.) In the Czech Republic, President Milos Zeman brandished a fake Kalashnikov inscribed with the words “for journalists.” On another occasion, while Zeman was standing alongside Vladimir Putin, he suggested they be “liquidated.” Putin, Russia’s ruthless ruler, has overseen a post-Soviet record number of journalists detained and a “climate of impunity” that encourages attacks on journalists.
Russia also has disseminated dystopian disinformation to destabilize and discredit Western institutions, including democracy itself. But it’s not just Moscow’s malevolence that permeates borders. Ankara’s and Beijing’s tactics amplify regionally, too.
“Press freedom in Russia and Turkey has sunk to levels that are without precedent in more than three decades, a decline that is all the more worrying because of the influence that these two countries exert on the surrounding region,” the index reported. As for China, its “model of state-controlled news and information is being copied in other Asian countries, especially in Vietnam and Cambodia.”
It’s not just East Asia and Eastern Europe rejecting press freedoms. Journalism is “sorely tested in North Africa,” the index reports, and in sub-Saharan Africa journalists “are often the victims of intimidation, physical violence, and arrest.”
Meanwhile, in the Mideast, the world’s worst region for media freedom, “armed conflicts, terrorism charges against independent journalists and media, and growing online surveillance and censorship make reporting extremely dangerous for the region’s journalists.”
The index color-codes countries based on press freedom. Twelve percent (black on the map) are considered “very bad”; 27 percent (red) “bad”; 35 percent (orange) “problematic”; and only 9 percent and 17 percent “good” or “fairly good” (white and yellow). Referring to the map, Margaux Ewen, Reporters Without Borders’ North American executive director, said in an interview that “we have a darker world map.”
We also have a darker world.
And the nation that’s supposed to enlighten it is part of the problem.
America’s relative ranking declined during the tenure of former President Barack Obama, and it fell two places further to 45th under President Donald Trump.
“The U.S. decline in press freedom is not simply bad news for journalists working inside the country; the downward trend has drastic consequences at the international level,” stated the index. It included examples of Trump’s attacks on the media, like labeling some outlets an “enemy of the American people,” routinely using the term “fake news” to discredit critical reporting, singling out institutions and individuals for their coverage and tweeting violent memes targeting CNN.
The president’s rhetoric “can really have a negative impact on how the American people see the media, but also how people abroad see the media in democracies and authoritarian regimes alike,” Ewen said.
This negative impact on some Americans is apparent in a new Quinnipiac poll, which asked: “Which comes closer to your point of view: the news media is the enemy of the people, or the news media is an important part of democracy?” Fifty-one percent of Republicans answered “enemy of the people,” while only 37 percent said “part of democracy” (Democrats answered with a 3/91 ratio).
Republicans, including previous presidents, have a proud legacy of leading efforts on behalf of freedom — of the press and of people. However, the poll suggests that believing the news media is the enemy of the people instead of an important part of democracy has become conflated with conservatism for some.
But such a belief isn’t conservative. It’s radical. And damaging internationally. “It really kind of weakens what the United States may be able to achieve diplomatically if at home they’re not leading by example,” Ewen said.
And that matters amid a global democratic decline. So it’s necessary to rebuild support for the “mutual-enforcement mechanism.”
“For a functioning democratic system in which the core elements of rule of law including press freedom is respected you need to have a real consensus around those issues,” Mounk said.
Creating this consensus must involve citizens and Congress, especially since the president attempts to undermine it. “It’s important for members of Congress to speak on behalf of the U.S. as a country, and defend the First Amendment,” said Ewen. The more who do “it will be clear to foreign leaders that the U.S. government has a specific position that does not reduce itself to just the position of Donald Trump.”
The Constitution, said Mounk, “gives us the people and gives certain institutions like Congress all the tools we need to stand up and preserve core principles like freedom of the press. But those tools aren’t going to save us in themselves; the Constitution can’t defend itself. It’s flesh-and-blood human beings who’ve been given the tools and the responsibility to stand up for those principles.”
Responsibility, indeed — but also the privilege, which should not be taken for granted as the world turns darker.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.