Attacks on the Press Track a Democratic Backslide

As press freedom declines globally, the United States must reckon with its own diminishment.

Media at Minneapolis Protest
Protesters and media personnel run to take cover as police start firing tear gas and rubber bullets following a demonstration to call for justice for George Floyd, a Black man who died while in police custody, in Minneapolis on May 30. CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images

The recent conviction of the journalist Maria Ressa in the Philippines for “cyber libel” has brought into sharp relief the global deterioration of press freedom. Across the world, fundamental freedoms of association, expression, and assembly are under threat. A recent report from Civicus found that twice as many people live under repression today as a year ago. Although much of that is due to diminishing freedoms in countries whose governments have long been known for their heavy hands, an increasing number of attacks on the media have come in places where press freedom was once enshrined.

An increasing number of attacks on the media have come in places where press freedom was once enshrined. Governments from Russia to Venezuela are using a range of tools to suppress freedom of the press and intimidate journalists, including censorship, restrictive or repressive legislation, harassment, false charges and arrests, physical attacks, and defamation. Bangladesh passed the Digital Security Act in 2018, which authorizes up to 14 years’ imprisonment for secretly recording government officials and up to 10 years for spreading negative propaganda about the 1971 war of independence; it also allows police to arrest journalists without a court order. Egypt, which is a leader in jailing journalists, now allows the state to block websites and certain social media accounts if they are perceived to be national security threats. Some 500 websites, including human rights and news organizations, have already been blocked. In such cases, protecting the nation and curbing misinformation are used as excuses to muzzle the press.

More striking still is the erosion of press freedoms seen in democracies such as Argentina, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Media defamation suits and violence against journalists in Argentina, as well as raids on news headquarters in Australia, suggest that governments are afraid of investigative journalists and independent media. Perhaps nowhere is the situation as precarious as in the United States, where the freedom of the press is guaranteed by the Constitution but has been steadily undermined.

Since before his 2016 election as U.S. president, Donald Trump has undermined the credibility of journalists and news outlets, while spreading misinformation during press conferences and through social media. He has singled out individual journalists during briefings and routinely referred to the media as “fake news.” This, in turn, has led to calls for violence against the media by some members of the public—particularly in recent weeks during media efforts to cover U.S. protests.

More than 400 journalists have been physically harmed or arrested in the United States since late May, during the wave of recent protests against the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (By comparison, before the protests, U.S. Press Freedom Tracker had recorded 155 incidents since 2017.) Police have targeted reporters with pepper spray, rubber bullets, and projectiles, and have arrested journalists, despite them identifying themselves as members of the media. “We yelled, ‘We’re media,’ to which they responded, ‘We don’t care,’” said MSNBC reporter Ali Velshi as he described an incident during which Minneapolis police shot rubber bullets at him.

Beyond physical harm, police violence against journalists—and Washington’s efforts to chisel away at press freedom in general—have serious implications for the country. Without protections for reporters, objective and professional documentation of what is happening in real time is diminished. An increase in impunity, where police officers and state officials believe they are above accountability, follows.

Further, the spread of misinformation and disinformation results in a general distrust of the media. Conspiracy theories abounded on social media in the aftermath of the killing of Floyd with some alleging that he was still alive, and others spreading rumors that outside forces or agitators (including philanthropist George Soros) were behind the protests. Although protesters’ reporting and uploading of photographs and videos of their marches has been essential to information sharing, the challenges of misinformation and disinformation mean that there is still a place for institutional media sources.

The protest-related attacks on media figures are the most violent yet, but they speak to a systemic effort by government agencies to undermine free press. Journalists reporting on migrant caravans in 2018 were singled out for lengthy screenings and questioning by the U.S. government. In some cases, their electronic devices were searched, too, as part of dossiers developed by the U.S. government. The Centers for Disease Control, a crucial source of information during the pandemic, recently issued a ban on responding to questions from Voice of America, citing as justification a recent White House memo denouncing the outlet as a promoter of “foreign propaganda.”

The erosion of press freedom in the United States does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, as the U.S. president disregards the First Amendment, autocrats and dictators draw from his playbook and demonize the press and restrict civil liberties and freedoms. Research by the New York Times hows that more than 50 leaders from around the world have used Trump’s term “fake news” to justify their actions to muzzle freedom of the press, including Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Bolsonaro, sometimes known as the “Trump of the Tropics,” has attacked the media as fake news, and said that the Brazilian public no longer trusts the mainstream media. Duterte has said that reporters are “not exempt from assassination,” and when he referred to the media as “spies” during a 2017 Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, Trump laughed.

The impacts of leaders’ disinformation campaigns—from harassment to sectarian violence to worse—are well documented.

It is critical that government and industry leaders step up before it is too late. Politicians, police, and other government officials and agencies must be held accountable for words and actions that cause harm to individual journalists and reduce freedom of the press. Social media platforms must hold these leaders to account, whether by removing posts that are incendiary or false, flagging them as promoting untruths, or simply shutting down their accounts. While Twitter has begun to flag incendiary posts with a warning message and recently removed a video clip manipulated to look as if CNN was spreading misinformation, it must go further. Social media platforms should simply delete posts by elected leaders that perpetuate falsehoods and traffic in racist and violent messages, and should suspend the accounts of officials who repeatedly flout the norms.

Newsrooms must strengthen and diversify media sources, including through local media, citizen journalists, and communities. And publishers must diversify newsrooms by race in order to generate and disseminate more inclusive and legitimate coverage that draws upon more viewpoints and that builds trust and connections with a broader public. This isn’t just a nicety: Research points to the role of the predominantly white press in “fanning the flames of racial violence,” including the controversial recent op-ed in the New York Times by Sen. Tom Cotton calling for the U.S. military to subdue Black Lives Matter protests.

These goals will not be reached easily, and the work won’t be finished even once they are. But there is a broad demand for such efforts. Even as governments chip away at an open media, research shows that support for freedom of the press has increased in many countries, with the United States showing an increase of 13 percent between 2015 and 2019.

The growth of civil society and independent media is a hallmark of democratic expansion in recent decades—they hold power to account and create critical space for public discourse. Preserving and promoting press freedom is essential to stem the democratic backsliding around the world.

Sushma Raman is the executive director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, host of the Justice Matters podcast, and co-author of The Coming Good Society: Why New Realities Demand New Rights. Twitter: @sushmaraman

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