By Alex P. Vidal
“When the public’s right to know is threatened, and when the rights of free speech and free press are at risk, all of the other liberties we hold dear are endangered.”—Christopher Dodd
RAPPLER and ABS-CBN aren’t alone.
Apparently there is a downward spiral of freedom and the media not only in the Philippines but also around the world.
The quo warranto petition Solicitor General Jose Calida had filed in the Supreme Court against the ABS-CBN and its sister company, ABS-CBN Convergence, was probably one of the many attempts by authoritarian rulers around the world today to snuff out critical journalism.
Sarah Repucci, Freedom House senior director for research and analysis, has sounded an alarm that “the fundamental right to seek and disseminate information through an independent press is under attack, and part of the assault has come from an unexpected source.”
It’s been reported that elected leaders in many democracies, who should be press freedom’s staunchest defenders, have made explicit attempts to silence critical media voices and strengthen outlets that serve up favorable coverage.
The trend is supposedly linked to a global decline in democracy itself: The erosion of press freedom is both a symptom of and a contributor to the breakdown of other democratic institutions and principles, a fact that makes it especially alarming.
In some of the most influential democracies in the world, Repucci noticed that large segments of the population are no longer receiving unbiased news and information.
“This is not because journalists are being thrown in jail, as might occur in authoritarian settings. Instead, the media have fallen prey to more nuanced efforts to throttle their independence,” she explained. “Common methods include government-backed ownership changes, regulatory and financial pressure, and public denunciations of honest journalists. Governments have also offered proactive support to friendly outlets through measures such as lucrative state contracts, favorable regulatory decisions, and preferential access to state information.”
The goal is reportedly to make the press serve those in power rather than the public.
The breakdown of global press freedom is closely related to the broader decline of democracy that Freedom House has tracked for the past 13 years, Repucci stressed.
She said although the press is not always the first institution to be attacked when a country’s leadership takes an antidemocratic turn, repression of free media is a strong indication that other political rights and civil liberties are in danger.
“Assaults on media independence are frequently associated with power grabs by new or incumbent leaders, or with entrenched regimes’ attempts to crush perceived threats to their control.”
The following recommendations by Repucci for policymakers in democratic nations are expected to help ensure the sustainability of independent media worldwide:
—Ensure that their actions do not excuse or inspire violations of press freedom. Democratic nations have a particularly important role to play in maintaining media freedom. Words matter, and when US officials verbally attack the press or fail to swiftly and vigorously condemn acts of repression such as Khashoggi’s murder, it sends a signal to undemocratic leaders around the world that assault on the press and crimes against journalists are permissible.
—Take strong and immediate action against any violations of media freedom globally through press statements, phone calls, meetings, letters, and the imposition of targeted sanctions on perpetrators. This includes speaking out against violence against journalists and authorities’ failure to identify and prosecute attackers, restrictions on media access, blocking of websites, and censorship on particular topics.
—Stand up publicly for the value of a free press, and support civic education that will inform the next generation. Press freedom is one of the most fundamental pillars of American democracy, and constitutional protections in the United States are stronger than in any other country in the world. Citizens could easily forget this amid media mudslinging and incendiary commentary. Political leaders and teachers should reiterate the extent to which we all benefit from professional journalists who hold those in power to account.
—Ensure that foreign policy and assistance prioritizes support for democratic principles, including media freedom, as the foundation of national security and economic prosperity. The goal of foreign assistance is to bring recipient countries to the point that they no longer need it. In that sense, it is shortsighted for donor governments to invest funding overseas without shoring up press freedom. National security and economic prosperity are strongest in nations where democratic rights are protected, and a free press is a key watchdog of democracy. Foreign aid specifically focused on bolstering independent media by providing technical training and emergency assistance is especially needed given the threats journalists currently face. Countries that have experienced recent expansions in press freedom, such as Angola, Ethiopia, Malaysia, and Ecuador, are particularly vulnerable to backsliding and require special focus.
—Support social media as an alternative outlet for free expression in repressive environments. Innovative alternatives to state-controlled media regularly spring up on social media, including recently in Venezuela, Armenia, and Sudan. Related technology can be used to circumvent censorship and keep reporters anonymous where needed. Donor agencies should provide funding for technology that increases journalistic freedom.
(The author, who is now based in New York City, used to be the editor of two local dailies in Iloilo)