Freedom of the media has been experiencing a downward spiral around the world over the past decade. This has especially been seen in the world’s most influential democracies where socialist leaders have managed attempts to stifle the independence of the media. There is no democracy without freedom of expression which makes this development seriously disconcerting and its impact on state democracy, extremely dangerous.
According to Freedom House’s Special report dubbed Freedom and the Media 2019: A Downward Spiral, new forms of media repression is taking hold in open societies and authoritarian states alike. The trend is most acute in Europe, previously a bastion of well-established freedoms, and in Eurasia and the Middle East, where many of the world’s worst dictatorships are concentrated.
Large segments of the most popular democracies in the world are no longer receiving unbiased news and information. This is because the media have fallen prey to more nuanced efforts to throttle their independence. Common methods include government-backed ownership changes, regulatory and financial pressure, and public denunciations of honest journalists.
In authoritarian states, journalists are thrown in jail, but in democracies, governments have devised clever ways of making the media serve those in power than the public. The media is no longer a government watchdog or a mirror of the society but has been a tool to push the authoritarian regime’s agenda. Governments have done this by offering proactive support to friendly outlets through measures such as lucrative state contracts, favourable regulatory decisions, and preferential access to state information.
Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary and Aleksandar Vučić’s administration in Serbia have had great success in snuffing out critical journalism, blazing a trail for populist forces elsewhere. Both leaders have consolidated media ownership in the hands of their cronies, ensuring that the outlets with the widest reach support the government and smear its perceived opponents. In Hungary, where the process has advanced much further, nearly 80 per cent of the media is owned by government allies.
The most concerning development of recent years is that press freedom has come under unusual pressure in the United States, the world’s leading democratic power. President Donald Trump’s continual vilification of the press has seriously exacerbated an ongoing erosion of public confidence in the mainstream media. The president has repeatedly threatened to strengthen libel laws, revoke the licenses of certain broadcasters, and damage media owners’ other business interests.
The US constitution provides robust protections against such actions, but President Trump’s public stance on press freedom has had a tangible impact on the global landscape. Journalists around the world now have less reason to believe that Washington will come to their aid if their basic rights are violated. Key news organizations remain strong and continue to produce vigorous reporting on those in office, but the question is, for how long?
A free and independent media sector that can keep the population informed and hold leaders to account is as crucial for a strong and sustainable democracy as free and fair elections. Without it, citizens cannot make informed decisions about how they are ruled, and abuse of power, which is all but inevitable in any society, cannot be exposed and corrected.