By Karen M Markin
The United States is known for its strong protection of freedom of expression, going so far as to protect hate speech. Yet while on the campaign trail, President-elect Donald Trump said he wanted to “open up libel laws” so that “when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” He revoked the Washington Post’s press credentials, banning its reporters from his campaign events because the newspaper published stories he described as dishonest.
Such sensitivity to criticism has been the domain of the leaders of nations with military rule such as Egypt and Thailand, not one of the world’s oldest modern democracies. While Trump – or any other United States president — cannot single-handedly rescind current libel laws in the U.S., his attitude is still cause for concern. The fact that Trump made such a threat in a nation that has long prided itself on press freedom shows the fragility of freedom of expression. We must not take this freedom for granted.
Around the world, governments – even those with robust democratic traditions – are starting to crack down on criticism and dissent. These actions are no longer limited to authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia. Officials in democracies, including Turkey, India and Mexico are trying to stifle the news media. Governments have censored media content, interfered with newsroom operations and jailed journalists who were critical of state actions and policies. Criminal organizations also are targeting journalists who report on their activities, threatening or killing individuals in some cases and launching terrorist attacks on newsrooms in other cases. Forty-eight journalists were killed in 2016, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Press freedom reached a twelve-year low in 2015, according to the most recent statistics available from Freedom House, a U.S.-based independent watchdog organization that promotes democracy. Just 13 percent of the world’s population lived in a nation with unfettered coverage of political news, media that are not subject to state intrusion or burdensome economic or legal pressures, and a safe environment for journalists, the report said. Also in that year, terrorists attacked the Paris offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people.
Journalists were in danger when they questioned the practices of entrenched powers. Contentious topics included religion, business, government corruption, disputed sovereignty and organized crime. In other words, they were in danger when they were doing their jobs.
Most alarming for freedom of expression advocates is the rise of threats against the press in democracies. Although Turkey has been lurching toward democracy for nearly a century, recent attacks on journalists and media outlets suggest contempt for the press, an institution essential to self-government. At the helm of Turkey’s press crackdown is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose approach is increasingly authoritarian. His government has aggressively pursued journalists who were critical of his administration, accusing some of terrorism.
Turkish journalists have said the suppression is the worst since the days of military rule in the 1980s. Just before New Year’s Day, an investigative journalist in Turkey was detained on suspicion of writing a tweet critical of the state. In 2016, Turkey jailed 81 journalists, exceeding a record previously held by China, which was a distant second with 38 incarcerations. In the previous year, the office of a prominent newspaper in Istanbul was attacked by a group that smashed windows and threatened to burn down the building. These actions have no place in a democratic society.
Similarly, India is the world’s largest democracy, yet its press was deemed only partly free in Freedom House’s most recent report. Its constitution protects freedom of expression, but other laws, such as those related to national security, have been used to curtail journalists covering sensitive topics such as human rights abuses.
The agency reported several recent, specific assaults on press freedom. In one case, the government banned a film about the 2012 gang rape of a medical student. In another, a magazine editor was fired after publishing an article about the nutritional value of beef during a Hindu nationalist effort to restrict consumption of the meat. Journalists have been beaten and burned for reports that officials deemed too critical.
In Mexico, which only recently transitioned from one-party rule to democracy, journalists face intimidation from both government officials and drug cartels. The U.S. State Department reports that those who attack or intimidate journalists are seldom held responsible. Journalists say they self-censor due to the threat of attacks.
Nations with a history of press restriction continued in that tradition. China extended its well-known control of the news media to Hong Kong last year. Even though the former British colony was returned to Chinese control in 1997, it retained much autonomy and had been pursuing democratic reforms. That quest faced a setback when several publishers were arrested in an apparent attempt to thwart the release of books that allegedly undermined the authority of Chinese officials.
Taken together, these developments sound an alarm among freedom of expression advocates. Given the chance, authorities can and will abridge the media and journalists. Citizens need to make their concerns known before more damage occurs.