Death of the Free Press

Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.”    – Walter Cronkite

Journalism is fundamental to the health of our democracies. Declining press freedom is one of the first signs that a society is losing its commitment to democratic principles. Media freedom deteriorated in 48 countries between 2014 to 2017, according to a report recently published by Article19, a UK-based NGO advocating for Freedom of Expression.

With the erosion of press protections, an alarming concentration of media ownership by oligarchs, and disinformation spread to discredit journalists, we are facing a global crisis of press freedom.

Child holding sign protesting for press freedom. Image Source: Pinterest

Who Controls the Truth?

Concentration of media ownership is a topic that often goes by the board. But it has dangerous implications for our societies. Does the name Rupert Murdoch ring a bell? The media mogul owns major newspapers and TV channels in the US, UK and Australia. Kevin Rudd, former prime minister of Australia, described him as a “cancer eating the heart of Australian democracy.”

A report by the Media Reform Coalition published in 2015 warns that only three companies (Sun and Times owner News UK, Daily Mail publisher DMGT, and Daily Mirror owner Reach plc) control 71% of the newspaper market in the UK. Murdoch owns the Times, the Sun and the Wall Street Journal.

“This kind of concentration creates conditions in which wealthy individuals and organisations can amass huge political and economic power and distort the media landscape to suit their interests and personal views,” explain the authors of the report.

Murdoch admitted that he had “editorial control over major issues”. His publications mirror the right-wing views he is known for. Owner of former multinational mass media corporation News Corp, he has stated: “…for better or worse, [News Corp] is a reflection of my thinking, my character, my values.”

Rupert Murdoch with son Lachlan. Image Source: Bloomberg

Increasingly homogenous content in the media is the result of media ownership concentration and self-censorship by journalists. This leads to the breakdown of democratic mechanisms, as was the case in Hungary.

Hungary: IKEA Flatpack to Starve Critical Media

Jörg Wagner, a German reporter, travelled through Europe in July 2017 to examine media freedom. He was shocked by the declining press freedom in Hungary. The government puts pressure on oppositional media with the help of allies in the industry who take over the most critical newspapers and close them overnight. Another tactic of the Hungarian government and state companies is to refuse to place advertisements in critical newspapers, TV and radio channels. Although critical media are not prohibited officially, this move “starves [them] to death”. According to a Hungarian journalist who worked for an opposition newspaper before it was shut down, Prime Minister Viktor Orban developed a so-called “IKEA flatpack” that other countries can use as a model. It serves to make the media landscape more agreeable to the government.

In November 2018, the right-wing media conglomerate “Central European Press and Media Foundation” was launched in Hungary. It absorbed media companies founded and acquired by allies of Orban. 

During the last national election, journalists working for the state-owned public service broadcaster MTVA admitted to publishing “government messaging, and at times false stories”. A journalist asking to remain anonymous confessed: “Sometimes the editor will come into the office on the phone and dictate a whole story to us, word for word.”

Also, self-censorship by journalists is a systemic issue in the media industry. Often they are confronted with a dilemma: Adapt to the ideological line of your news editor, even if the information is  not truthful, or lose your job over sticking to your journalistic and ethical principles. 

Next to increasingly difficult working conditions, verbal attacks by politicians have set the scene to discredit journalists.

Mistrust and Disinformation Devalue Journalists

The ongoing “Fake News” hysteria is symptomatic of a global mistrust in the media. Populists use the term as a scapegoat — a simple explanation for complex problems. It is easy for populists to avoid issues by referring to them as “fake news”. That is the real danger. Politicians can use this concept to discredit oppositional powers.

Child pulling a Pinocchio, holding a “Fake News” newspaper. Image Source: Rich Vintage

This year, two incidents added fuel to the fire.

The staged death of Russian journalist Babchenko in May 2018 left the international community in disbelief. With the very real assassination of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in October 2017 and Khashoggi’s gruesome murder in October 2018, many condemned Babchenko’s decision to collaborate with the Ukrainian secret service.

Equally damaging for the image of journalists was the long drop down of award-winning German journalist Claas Relotius who revealed this month that his stories were made-up. “He committed journalistic fraud on a grand scale”, stated his former employer, German magazine Der Spiegel.

Rescue of the Free Press?

All these developments paint a rather grim picture for the future of the free press. 

Immediate action is urgently needed. Journalists must raise awareness of the wider public to the ties between their industry and political influence. Civilians still hold the power to bend their leaders’ will, as recent demonstrations by the ‘gilets jaunes’ show. If more people knew about the extent of media ownership concentration, a societal shift could be triggered.

At the same time, policy makers have the duty to regulate media ownership in order to protect our democracies. To combat self-censorship, legislators must empower journalists by improving their working conditions so that they are not forced to betray their ideals in order to survive. Support journalist trade unions all over the world. We cannot face the enemies of a free press alone. Allies within the business sector are crucial to stand up to powerful oligarchs. 

Symbol for press freedom – Fist raised in resistance, holding a pen. Image Source: Rapid Eye

Within the whole debate around “fake news”, Daniel Patrick Moynihan puts it straight: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” As a counterforce to disinformation and “fake news,” media literacy is ever more important these days. But it is only a drop in the ocean. A social media giant like Facebook should be regulated as a media firm, because the platform fuels the dissemination of disinformation. Following the Cambridge Analytica revelations, legislators are uniting to introduce regulations.

Considering the extent of obstacles standing in the way of a free press, these suggestions may sound naive. But as Irish statesman Edmund Burke told us: “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good [wo]men should do nothing.” 

Image Credit: Anadolu Agency

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