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Freedom and the Media: A Downward Spiral (p. 16 - 30)

We will conclude the week by reviewing the second half of Freedom House's report on the global troubles relating to press freedom. Read essays 3 and 4 (pages 16 - 30) off the PDF here:

A New Toolbox for Co-opting the Media

Key Findings

  • In their recent attempts to control the media, antidemocratic leaders in fragile democracies have deployed a new toolbox that includes economic, legal, and extralegal means to silence critical journalists and bolster friendly news outlets.

  • In Hungary, the governing Fidesz party has all but consolidated its control over the media, and has built a parallel reality where government messages and disinformation reinforce each other.

  • In Serbia, the process of co-optation has not yet been fully successful, but an environment of intimidation and harassment inhibits journalists’ day-to-day work.

  • Beyond these two countries, a lack of trust in the media, the onslaught of fake news, increasing political polarization, and the lack of a profitable business model all grind down press freedom, laying the groundwork for co-optation by ill-intentioned political actors.

In April 2018, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party won their third parliamentary supermajority, securing 49 percent of the vote and trouncing the fragmented opposition. A year earlier, Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vučić won an outright victory in his bid for that country’s presidency, taking 55 percent of the vote in the first round and preempting the need for a presidential runoff for the first time in Serbia’s history.

Orbán and Vučić have both moved to dismantle institutional checks and balances and centralize power in their own hands; they have also benefited from European support and ineffectual domestic opposition. But it is their domination of the media that has underwritten their success.

Over the past few years, a new toolbox has emerged that illiberal leaders in fragile democracies deploy to control and co-opt the press, with the aim of ensuring their stay in power. This toolbox leaves out tactics like censorship, force, or outright intimidation of journalists. Instead, it contains a collection of methods used to harness structural conditions. Once successful co-optation has taken place, media are incorporated into the system as building blocks that prop up those in power.

The illiberal toolbox for co-opting the media contains a variety of legal, extralegal, and economic strategies for applying pressure to critical outlets, and supporting friendly ones. Hungary serves as the primary example where this co-optation has been successful. And while Vučić and his allies have yet to consolidate control over Serbia’s media, they are following in Orbán’s footsteps. Both countries declined from Free to Partly Free in Freedom House’s most recent Freedom in the World report.

But it is not just Hungary and Serbia where media co-optation by ill-intentioned political leaders can threaten democracy. Globally, independent media foster public discussion and political participation that is grounded in well- informed opinions. These practices are essential to democracy, and today they are under strain. While the public sphere has expanded exponentially in the new millennium, this expansion has brought with it confusion, economic disruption, polarization, and an increasing level of distrust toward the institutions that underpin democracy. Of these institutions, the media are under particular duress.

The illiberal toolbox is particularly effective because it exploits the weaknesses of today’s media environment, including the decline of trust in the press, and the crisis of the old business model. It takes place gradually and stealthily, and after a point it is difficult to reverse. This makes the media in many countries vulnerable—and by extension, threatens the very basis of democracy by undermining an essential check on unbridled government power.

A Model Ready for Export

In Serbia, the prospect of EU membership, which brings with it increasingly stringent rule-of-law monitoring, can still provide an incentive for change. But once successful co-optation has taken place, as in Hungary, it is very difficult to reverse. And after consolidating media in Hungary, Fidesz is now taking steps to expand its influence transnationally: party allies acquired media in Macedonia and Slovenia in 2018, and early 2019 saw the creation of an English- language newswire based in London apparently established to spread Orbán’s illiberal agenda. Perhaps not surprisingly, the first non-Hungarian news agency to quote the new wire was Serbia’s Tanjug.

While illiberal co-optation does not eradicate independent journalism, it harnesses institutional weaknesses and market conditions to severely limit its reach and impact. Media consumers can still access quality journalism produced by small, public-minded teams of reporters, but in light of increasing government control of the media landscape, these outlets are fighting an uphill battle. The illiberal toolbox works because it discourages and obscures independent reporting, funnels limitless resources into the creation and maintenance of a loyal media juggernaut, and makes sure journalists know their place in the new system.

Both in Central Europe and outside it, the press is suffering from a crisis of trust and a crisis of the old business model. In the United States and in Europe, the profound change that came with the spread of online news and the collapse of the traditional advertising market has sent outlets and owners scrambling for profits by prioritizing content that spurs outrage. The growing prominence of fake news and disinformation has further fed into political polarization, contributing to a cycle of decreasing trust. In the United States, fewer than half the population say they trust the media; the figure is around one-third in Italy and the United Kingdom, and only one-fourth in Turkey or Russia. Rates of trust in the media seem to move together with those of trust in government—explaining part of the current crisis.

The lack of trust, the onslaught of disinformation and tabloidized half-truths, and the elusiveness of a profitable business model all grind down media freedom and prepare the ground for potential illiberal takeover. When crafty and talented political leaders emerge with an appropriate agenda, it could be simply a matter of time before democracies buckle under the pressure.


Why Social Media Are Still Worth Saving

Key Findings

  • Social media dramatically expand access to information and freedom of expression, and in repressive and troubled countries they remain a lifeline to journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens attempting to exercise their democratic rights.

  • Dismissing social media as a cesspool of lies and vitriol plays directly into the hands of authoritarians looking to increase state hegemony over the information landscape.

  • The governments most guilty of pumping out misleading propaganda and surreptitiously manipulating social media through paid trolls and automated accounts are often the same ones that propose to solve the problem by restricting civil liberties.

  • In order to tackle disinformation without curbing freedom of expression, government regulation should concentrate on certain aspects of companies’ conduct, not the speech of their users.

For years before the recent uprising against authoritarian ruler Omar al-Bashir, Sudanese girls had shared pictures of their romantic crushes in a Facebook group dedicated to digging up dirt on local boys—a sort of crowdsourced background check. But as security agents escalated their crackdown on the nascent antigovernment protest movement in September 2018, the network mobilized to identify and deter abuses by state security personnel. “You can post any photo for any person of the National Intelligence and Security Service,” said Azaz Elshami, an activist in the Sudanese diaspora, “and they will give you who he is, where he lives, his mobile number, family, all that.” The process was so effective that agents of the much-feared NISS had to wear masks in public to avoid identification.

However, it became clear during the protests that the same digital tools could be manipulated by the government to spread disinformation. In January, when Sudanese police used live ammunition against the demonstrators, a news site maintained by the Sudanese diaspora reported the death of three individuals, including 16-year-old Mohamed al- Obeid. Local journalists rapidly shared his image on social media, and it soon spread to international media outlets. As activists attempted to ascertain more details about the boy’s identity, suspicion grew, until ultimately it became clear that the image depicted the aftermath of police violence in far-off Brazil. Sudanese activists concluded that the fraudulent image was the work of a team of NISS internet trolls known for disseminating smears and falsehoods. “It was a trap,” one citizen journalist tweeted, “orchestrated to discredit us all.”

Sudan’s revolution, like the Arab Spring before it, has showcased both the positive and the negative potential of social media. At a time when the harmful aspects of these platforms are being exposed and debated around the world, the fact that they have also delivered vital benefits should not be forgotten. They have fostered a rise in citizen journalism and activism and allowed independent reporters to continue reaching news consumers in environments where traditional outlets have fallen under government control, and their transnational nature has provided a measure of protection against state censorship. The challenge for policymakers, technology companies, and civil society today is to prevent malicious state and nonstate actors from poisoning the digital sphere while protecting and enhancing the conditions and qualities that allow the internet to bolster media freedom and advance democracy.

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