Sunday was World Press Freedom Day, a date set by the United Nations to celebrate freedom of the press and the defense of media from attacks on their independence.
If there was ever a critical time for fact-based journalism, it surely is now — in the age of the coronavirus. Yet, the pandemic is exacerbating the many crises that threaten such journalism with extinction, not just in autocracies like China and Russia, but even in democracies like ours.
“Lamestream Media is totally CORRUPT, the Enemy of the People!” President Donald Trump tweeted Sunday, repeating a phrase honed by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to label supposed ideological enemies who should be eliminated. (Joe Biden, in comparison, issued a statement praising journalists for “upholding free and open democracies, both at home and around the world.”)
For President Trump, however, World Press Freedom Day was just another day to condemn journalists who challenge his lies and deceptions about the coronavirus.
For the rest of us, it should serve as a vital reminder that the coming few years will be pivotal for the survival of press freedom, which is threatened by a series of crises compounded by COVID-19.
The crises facing “for freely reported, independent, diverse and reliable information” are succinctly described in a new report by the organization Reporters Without Borders. “We are entering a decisive decade for journalism,” says RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire. “The coronavirus pandemic illustrates the negative factors threatening the right to reliable information.”
These include a Geopolitical Crisis, as COVID-19 offers authoritarian regimes a chance to impose measures on frightened publics that might otherwise cause problems. Hungary, among many examples, recently passed laws making it easier to prosecute journalists.
China (No. 177 of 180 on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index) is promoting its authoritarian model worldwide as an alternative to liberal democracy — including a “new world media order” in which journalism is tightly controlled.
The pandemic shows the danger of such a model: China was able to hide the outbreak by suppressing the remaining small space for investigative journalism that existed before the crisis. Even still, independent bloggers tried to report it, and the free press of Hong Kong and Taiwan were able to report about it. Imagine if they disappeared.
Meantime, the coronavirus era amplifies the technological crisis that permits propaganda, rumors and conspiracy theories to compete unimpeded with fact-based journalism. “The pandemic has amplified the spread of rumors and fake news as quickly as the virus itself,” the RSF report notes. This includes state troll armies from Russia (No. 149 in the index) and China that spread rumors that the virus was manufactured by the U.S. military.
Of course, in the United States, online conspiracy theories are promoted by tweets from the president and his avid supporters, including Fox News commentators.
Which brings us to the democratic crisis, in which leading democratic politicians “openly foment hatred of journalists.” In this category, RSF cites Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro (No. 107), who “continue to denigrate the media.” (I’d add India’s Narendra Modi, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one of the global leaders in journalist arrests.)
This last category, I believe, is crucial. Americans may be inured to Trump’s pile-on against fact-based media, but the coronavirus era reveals just how dangerous it has become. RSF ranks the United States No. 45 in press freedom, which I believe is too low. But the president’s vitriol against solid reporting — already redolent of dictator language — will become increasingly dangerous as public anger grows over his dismal handling of COVID-19.
Indeed, the president is priming his base to blame “enemies” for his failures, as we have seen with his support for armed protesters in the Michigan statehouse, who were protesting guidelines set by his own scientists. This plays into the fourth crisis cited by RSF, a crisis of trust toward journalists worldwide.
Throughout the world, primed by social media and partisan politicians, the publics have grown increasingly wary of journalists in general. In the United States, according to a Pew Research Center study, Republicans trust only a handful of news outlets, including Fox News and the talk-radio programs of hosts Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.
In this dangerous climate for the free press, COVID-19 has accelerated an economic crisis that was already decimating newspapers, as social media replaced print and ad revenue plummeted. The crisis has destroyed advertising and is accelerating the layoffs and ownership concentration that already threatened journalists’ independence, not just in America, but in Europe and Asia.
It is almost impossible to imagine what the media scene will look like one year from now, except to say that the economics of fact-based media will be even more daunting. Yet, if the COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that the republic won’t survive without a free press capable of challenging lies dispensed by dishonest leaders.
The time for figuring out how to save a free press from collapsing is now.