HERE IS A THOUGHT Experiment. If Russia had a free press, how many Russians would support Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine? Here’s another one: How might the early days of Covid-19 have unfolded if the virus first emerged in a country with a free press and not China? Could the government of such a country have covered it up in those crucial first few weeks?
As news junkies celebrated World Press Freedom Day on May 3rd, it’s worth remembering why it matters. A free press can scrutinize those in power, expose corruption and prevent abuse. For a tyrant, as Napoleon Bonaparte once lamented, “four enemy newspapers are more to be feared than 1,000 bayonets.” The free flow of information is the lifeblood of democracy. Without them, voters cannot make informed decisions. Governments struggle to notice or correct their mistakes. And free media facilitate the dissemination of good ideas and useful information, thereby accelerating progress.
But freedom of the press is declining worldwide. Around 85% of people live in countries where it has been restricted in the last five years. She is just as paralyzed today as she was in 1984, during the Cold War. However, the nature of censorship has evolved since then. Hundreds of reporters are still imprisoned and dozens are killed each year. But most modern autocrats at least pay lip service to the idea of a free press and choose more subtle weapons to attack it.
Government advertising budgets are wasted on flattering outlets. Critics get tax audits and fines for defamation. Such harassment can drive struggling media companies into the red. Some can then be bought by ruling party cronies, who might not mind their TV stations losing money as long as they please the public works contractors. Mr. Putin pioneered this approach; it has been widely imitated.
Technology is used to make life hell for brazen hackers. New tools make it easier to spy on them. Investigations last year revealed that Pegasus bugging software was plugged into the cellphones of nearly 200 journalists to read their messages, track them and identify their sources. Social media can be used to harass reporters. A survey found that nearly three quarters of women journalists have suffered abuse online. This is scariest when it’s organized and has the tacit support of the ruling party. In India, for example, critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have faced death and rape threats from Hindu nationalist trolls, who sometimes publish their addresses and incite vigilante groups to visit them.
Even in liberal democracies, laws against defamation and invasion of privacy are often abused. Oligarchs elsewhere are suing criminal reporters in London, hoping to saddle them with ruinous legal fees and endless trouble. A popular newspaper in Poland Gazeta Wyborcza, has been hit by more than 60 cases in recent years, many of which have been brought forward by leaders of the ruling party. A Maltese journalist exposing state corruption was handling over 40 cases when she was killed in 2017.
How can defenders of press freedom fight back? An easy start would be for liberal governments to abolish archaic laws criminalizing defamation, which are still surprisingly widespread. They are also intended to curb bogus lawsuits, such as the European Commission is currently considering. Next, independent media must find new sources of funding. Charities can get involved, as can crowdfunding and wealthy owners who care about free speech. Public service broadcasters can play a useful role, but only if they have sufficient guarantees to be truly independent.
The task is more difficult in more repressive places, but technology can help. Where on-the-spot reporting is too risky, satellite imagery and large datasets allow journalists to piece together stories from afar. Free countries should offer them asylum and secure jobs. Where censorship is strict, citizens can use virtual private networks to access blocked content and online tools to capture websites before they are censored.
Journalists in free countries can help those in autocracies. Cross-border collaborations have uncovered scandals like Pegasus and the Panama Papers. That Washington Post‘s cloud-based publishing system allowed Apple dailya struggling pro-democracy Hong Kong tabloid to publish longer than it otherwise would have been able to.
The fight will be uphill. The pandemic has provided governments with a plausible excuse to restrict press freedom: nearly 100 have done so in the name of public safety. Donald Trump has shown how a demagogue can erode trust in the media, and others are copying him. In a poll last year, nearly 60% of respondents across 28 countries said journalists intentionally mislead the public. Some do, of course, and World Press Freedom Day is a moment for protected journalists to ask themselves whether they are best using their freedom. ■
“Press Freedom: What’s at stake,” a documentary by The Economist, documents our investigation into the decline of press freedom. It is available for viewing here.