The Irish Times view on press freedom: holding back the illiberal tide

The erosion of press freedom is both a symptom and a driver of wider democratic drift

When Donald Trump issues dark warnings about the “fake news media”, he emboldens autocrats elsewhere. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

When Donald Trump issues dark warnings about the “fake news media”, he emboldens autocrats elsewhere. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

 

In Algiers last Sunday, police arrested the reporter Sofiane Merrakchi on suspicion of having filmed a demonstration for Al Jazeera, whose coverage of recent protests has irritated the authorities. On the same day, in Azerbaijan, an investigative journalist named Afgan Mukhtarli, who has written about corruption in the country, began a hunger strike in protest over his six-year prison sentence, handed down on foot of what Reporters Without Borders calls “absurd”, unproven charges. A day later, on Monday, Nagarjuna Reddy, a reporter who covers corruption in India’s eastern Andhra Pradesh state, was nearly killed when he was beaten and tortured with steel bars and knives.

None of these incidents – a random snapshot taken over 48 hours – generated international uproar. Nor are they connected in themselves. But, in another, very real, sense, they are unmistakably linked. All are symptoms of a global climate – one no longer limited to those parts of the world led by autocrats and dictators – in which suppression of independent journalism is increasingly becoming the norm. That makes life difficult for journalists, but it should alarm all of us, because a vibrant, free press – messy, imperfect and occasionally infuriating though it may be – is not merely a right accorded to an industry but a necessary condition for democracy to flourish.

As newspapers today mark World News Day, celebrations are tempered by these chill winds. Thirty of our colleagues in journalism have been killed so far this year, and the Committee to Protect Journalists reports a recent spike in the number of detentions. Across the world, media freedom is atrophying. The slide is not confined to authoritarian states. The rise of illiberal strongmen, such as Viktor Orban in Hungary or Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, has steadily normalised rhetoric that demonises the news media, and that produces a circular effect: when Donald Trump issues dark warnings about the “fake news media”, he emboldens autocrats elsewhere. That puts lives at risk and democratic rights in peril.

In the 1990s, when new democracies were emerging and the fall of the Berlin Wall still echoed around the world, many in the West complacently assumed that the spread of democratic norms had taken on inexorable momentum. Today, in the heart of the West, democratic institutions and principles are under ferocious attack. In other words, the erosion of press freedom is both a symptom and a driver of wider democratic drift.

That process is not irreversible. The basic human impulse for access to free information cannot be extinguished, and history tells us that free expression can rebound after periods of repression. But none of that is automatic. Rights need tending, guarding. They need constantly to be defended and fought for. And, right now, the free press is in the fight of its life.

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