OPINION: How fake democrats control and repress media

Robert Labayen

Posted at Sep 02 2020 12:25 AM

They don’t even have to shoot journalists anymore.

Some governments that have democratic skin actually have an authoritarian soul. Political Science professor Ali Riaz calls them “hybrid regimes.” In a recent Daily Star online article, he explained that in old dictatorships, “Censorship was blatant and the autocrats did not want to conceal that they were censoring.” Today, with new autocrats trying to “adorn themselves with the garb of democrats…New modes of media control and tools of muzzling the critic have become normal.”

Riaz quoted another professor who wrote, “independent and critical media face various forms of intimidation, including control over supplies of paper and selective application of tax legislation.” I am reminded of Ghana’s J.J. Rawlings when he tried to silence the press by restricting the supply of paper for a time during his reign from 1981 to 2001.

The conclusion of a Freedom House article is that “Media freedom has been declining around the world over the past decade.” Aside from making life hard for the critical press, governments dominate the awareness field with their own voice. Freedom House Senior Director for Research and Analysis, Sarah Repucci, reported that Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Serbia’s Aleksandar Vucic “have consolidated media ownership in the hands of their own cronies.” She noted that in Hungary, “nearly 80% of the media are owned by government allies.”

Iria Puyosa is a professor in Higher Education and Public Policy. She related that in Argentina, "funds are directed from the government (through subsidies and advertising guidelines) to sympathetic media. " She also said that the friends of Argentinian strongman Hugo Chavez acquired a tv news channel and several newspapers.

Since the ownership is not always known to the public, it may appear that even the “free press” supports the government and critics are just troublemakers.

Freedom House also wrote in its article that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “now faces corruption charges for allegedly offering regulatory favors to two major media firms in exchange for positive coverage.”

In India, “The media have become widely flattering of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.” His government has been “selective in the allocation of television licenses, effectively excluding unfriendly outlets from the airwaves.” The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party “has supported campaigns to discourage speech that is ‘anti-national’.” Repucci also said “government-aligned thugs” in India “have raided critical journalists’ homes and offices.”

In the US, President Trump has “repeatedly threatened to strengthen libel laws, revoke licenses of certain broadcasters, and damage media owners’ other business interests.”

The protection of the guilty is also possible. Freedom House reported, “A new privacy law in Nepal restricts the collection of personal information of any individual, including public officials, exploiting legitimate concerns about privacy to suppress media scrutiny of political leaders’ conflicts of interest or corruption.” In Pakistan, “security agents have allegedly warned journalists against coverage of taboo subjects, such as abuses by the military, or given reporters instructions on how to cover specific political issues.”

In her article, Puyosa related that the same kind of preventing "vilification of officials" is ensured by the RESORTE law in Venezuela and the Organic Communication Law in Ecuador. Puyosa recalled that after Chavez shut down Radio Caracas Television, he asserted that Venezuela should be freed from media associated with the oligarchy.

Freedom House describes the new autocrat's media repression toolbox to contain the following: financially draining lawsuits, enforcement of laws, threats against journalists, arbitrary tax investigation, abusing licensing practices, verbal harassment, government-backed ownership takeover, smear by proxies.

Riaz concluded that the result of a threatening environment is self-censorship. When self-censorship happens, the new dictatorships can triumphantly say “we have not done anything to them. Media freedom here is alive and well!”

Read:

21st century authoritarianism: Russia and Venezuela's control over information and civil society by Iria Puyosa in the Global Americans website

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

How new autocrats curb press freedom by Ali Riaz in The Daily Star website

Media Freedom: A Downward Spiral by Sarah Repucci in the Freedom House website

The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.