It is time to sound the alarm.
Press freedom is under attack by a thousand cuts – and not just in the usual countries known for their media censorship.
The World Press Freedom Index is down again this year. This index, which ranks countries according to their level of press freedom, shows that only 12 out of 180 countries seen above in white offer a favorable environment for journalism.
This deterioration is particularly alarming because attacks on press freedom are often a precursor to assaults on other democratic institutions and even democracy writ large.
According to a 2021 report by the Swedish Institute V-Dem that measures the state of democracy worldwide, the number of liberal democracies fell from 41 to 32 last year, with Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Brazil and India—once the world’s largest democracy– leading the latest assault on the media and free speech. And that’s not all–25 other countries are also in a democratic decline, including the United States, thanks to repeated attacks on their press.
Those attacks are not only rhetorical. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that a record 293 journalists were imprisoned in 2021, with 50 of them jailed in China as the government cracked down on reporting on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests and coverage critical of its pandemic response.
The roadmap to this global erosion of press freedom is now all too familiar. Ruling governments first discredit journalists and call their fact-based information “fake news.” Then they spread disinformation and propaganda through complicit media outlets and social media platforms. This weaponization of social media, in particular, leads to increased partisanship and polarization and eventually undermines civil society, democratic principles, and finally, free elections.
Journalists are on the frontline of this fight.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee recognized this by awarding this year’s Nobel Peace Prize jointly to Philippine journalist Maria Ressa and Russian journalist Dmitri Muratov.
Muratov, the editor-in-chief of the Russian paper Novaya Gazeta, described journalism in his country as “going through a dark valley” with six journalists from his paper alone killed since 2000.
Journalism is also under attack in the Philippines, where Ressa’s online news site Rappler is leading the fight for press freedom while reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s numerous human rights violations in his war on drugs.
Although Ressa has been arrested twice, convicted of cyber libel in 2020 and now faces up to six years in prison, she continues this heroic fight. Her story and the escalating conflict between the press and Duterte’s government are chronicled in the film “A Thousand Cuts.”
Ressa believes social media is helping roll back democracy by spreading disinformation and manipulating the public. She calls it “an atom bomb that has exploded in our information ecosystem” and says “disinformation is the new terrorism” that poses a threat to not only press freedom but democracy itself.
In this digital age, social media platforms are the modern-day printing press—with one big difference–information can be shared instantly and to a global audience without a filter or fact-checking. Here’s the problem: Research confirms that misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories are all more engaging than real news.
A study by NYU found that misinformation on Facebook got six times more clicks than factual news from August 2020 to January 2021. We now know from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen that algorithms are biased toward information that sparks outrage because when people have an emotional reaction, they are more likely to stay engaged, and Facebook makes more money. This is the foundation of its business model.
In hindsight, it’s no surprise that Facebook and other platforms amplified conspiracy theories about election fraud, ginning up anger that culminated in the January 6 insurrection.
There are no easy answers, but it is clear the public must fight for access to fact-based information and that journalists must lead this battle. People need to be educated about the value of a free press and then remind leaders around the world to respect laws that safeguard press freedom.
Near the end of the film, “A Thousand Cuts, ” Ressa quotes Martin Niemöller’s poem about the Holocaust that goes like this:
“First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out. Because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out. Because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out. Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me. And there was no one left to speak for me.”
Ressa added her own coda:
“Then they came for the journalists. We don’t know what happened after that.”
The battle for press freedom in the Philippines is a cautionary tale. No country can take press freedom for granted anymore.