The free press under pressure

By Reyshimar Arguelles

The Fourth Estate is an essential part of modern society. We cannot simply expect those in power to hold themselves accountable for whatever unjust action or dumb decision they make, so it makes sense to have an outside force that functions only to scrutinize existing structures, encourage the public to think independently of their biases, and help us realize that things are not what they seem.

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations,” so goes a quote wrongly attributed to Orwell who, in an ironic sense, wrote about the dangers of manufacturing “truths” to manipulate people’s perception of political and social realities.

The State reserves the power to use information in a way that favors its image. The objective is to let people know that their government is always right and that it is doing what is necessary to make things better. But State institutions are not entirely objective entities that produce the best possible decisions. In recognizing the all too human attributes of the State, there has to be an entity that performs outside of State power.

Thus, the very concept of the free press deserves protection from State influence. But is this sufficient enough to view the free press as the most objective institution in society?

To say that the free press sides with the people is a point of contention. For one, how can we make such an assertion if the people itself sides with the narrative of the State? We can look no further than modern “democratic” societies that have allowed populist leaders to take charge, regardless of the incendiary and tasteless rhetoric peddled by such leaders.

In scrutinizing the likes of Trump, Duterte, and Bolsonaro — whose bases champion the rejection of liberal civility in favor of an “actions speak louder” ethic — the free press loses its liberating function as people place legitimate criticism in the same category as fake news.

Trump, for one, has mocked outlets such as CNN and the New York Times for pointing out his administration’s numerous gaffs. Trump lashed out at them with threats of violence that appeal to a crowd whose idea of legitimate sources of information are edgy YouTube channels obsessed with the flat earth theory and the idea that 5G networks amplify the effects of CoViD-19.

In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s treatment of journalists critical of his government is no different. If anything, his administration has only fueled a complete distrust of Brazilian news media. He and his supporters railed against acclaimed journalist Patrícia Campos Mello in highly sexualized social media attacks that, according to a report by the North American Congress on Latin America, occur six times in a minute. And last January, Bolsonari declared the news media an “endangered species.”

As the CoViD-19 pandemic continues to spread at an alarming rate in the country, Bolsonaro has time and again dismissed the health crisis as an exaggeration, something that even his own health minister found outrageous. But instead taking drastic measures to contain the virus, Bolsonaro chose to limit access to public information. He also ordered to discontinue publishing official government data about the pandemic.

With the recent conviction of Rappler’s Maria Ressa, the Philippines is not far behind in shutting down criticism. And despite the Palace’s nauseating assertion that it is for press freedom and free speech, the President’s contradictory statements and his administration’s attempts to use legal means to shut down free speech give us a clear view of his actual stance with regards to the Fourth Estate.

Through these experiences, the free press loses its legitimacy when the people it seeks to protect finds comfort in undemocratic systems.

From this, we could say that the free press is fighting for its own survival. But the real situation is far from it. Because so long as common sense thrives and governments continue to make harmful decisions, we all need to be heard lest we become complicit in bringing out our own damnation.