The media occupies a crucial space within all societies. It always has, but in an uncertain age, dominated by social media with its proliferation of opinions and “facts”, and the trend towards increasingly polarized, controlling governments, it is more important than ever.
In order to serve the interests and needs of the people, media organizations must be ideologically unshackled, financially independent; able to scrutinize and criticize governments and corporations, highlight social injustice, reveal corruption, prejudice and dishonesty, examine the causes of crises and offer solutions. Free and independent media is a cornerstone of democracy, an essential element in the maintenance of civil liberties, and the upholding of human rights, however, research published by the think tank Freedom House (FH) reveals that media freedom has been deteriorating over the past decade, with, “new forms of repression taking hold in open societies and authoritarian states alike.” In Europe, where media freedom has traditionally been strong, “the [controlling] trend is most acute. As well as Eurasia and the Middle East”, including Israel, where, in 2019, ex-PM Benjamin Netanyahu was charged with corruption for offering regulatory advantages to major media in exchange for favorable coverage.
Journalists are under threat and media freedom is being stifled by dictatorial regimes (whose number is growing), curtailed by manipulative governments (autocratic, democratic, and professing democratic) that routinely distort the truth or blatantly lie, and undermined by corporate influence. Mainstream media (BBC News, Fox, CNN, national newspapers etc.) is the primary area of concern. This is where most people, often unconsciously, ingest their news and information, as the TV or radio drones on in the background, or on the bus, train or tube/metro via a free tabloid.
Investigative journalism, which is regarded as expensive and messy by corporate owners and public broadcasters, is increasingly rare; media outlets are overly dependent on Government press briefings, leaders’ comments or remarks/assertions from international bodies. Statements that steal the headlines and are repeated endlessly on national airwaves (with subtitles), psychologically conditioning the public, coloring the way events and global crises are understood. Bending information, influencing public opinion, corrupting or slanting “facts” with a loud title, a statistic, tone of voice or inference, to support the corporate position or Government/ideological view.
Good to bad to very bad
Shocking, but perhaps unsurprising data from FH suggests that only 13% of the world’s population enjoys a free press. In part this dark statistic is due to China and India, which account for around a third of the global population, and are both media suppressive; totally for China, which is now throwing a heavy shadow over Hong Kong as well as the mainland, and increasingly so in India (ranked 142 out of 180 countries on The World Press Freedom Index), where PM Mahendra Modi’s government is overtly heavy handed. Beating up and arresting journalists covering the army occupation of Jammu and Kashmir, and intimidating any outlets/reporters deemed to be critical of the authorities, particularly their handling of Covid.
The annual freedom listing from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) classes (180) countries from good to very bad. Scandinavian countries routinely top the chart, and so it was with in 2020, with Norway leading the way. Germany comes in 13th, the UK 33rd, France 32nd, the USA limps in at 44th. Turkey, Russia and parts of Eastern Europe, such as Hungary (where government allies own around 80 percent of the media) and Poland, wallow dark red in “problematic”, as does Brazil and 51 other countries.
Lower down the murky Ladder of Paranoia, media outlets operate in a dense fog. Described as “bad” – meaning the state controls or owns the press in one form or another, manages access to the internet, and will happily silence anyone attempting to speak out. There are twenty such places of fear and suspicion. Singapore, routinely touted by western politicians as a shiny model of success, slumbers here, and just above Syria and Iran we find America’s Middle-East pal, the Royal Dictatorship of Saudi Arabia (170th), where according to RSF, the “press is completely gagged”. Appearance (not truth or principles) is all in contemporary politics, and while most newspapers in Saudi are privately owned they are subsidized and regulated by the government.
Within these “problematic” and “very bad” territories journalists and media workers who criticize royals, politicians (none of whom it seems can bear criticism) and the like, run the risk of being killed, abducted, beaten. In 2020, according to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), 66 journalists and media staff were murdered globally, up from 49 in 2019. Mexico, with 14 killings, is the deadliest, followed by Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Philippines and Syria. Deaths of journalists were also recorded in Somalia, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Colombia, Honduras, Paraguay, Russia, Yemen. And a Pakistani journalist, Sajid Hussain, was killed in Sweden, where he had lived since 2018. He fled Pakistan in 2012 after receiving death threats following his work on forced disappearances and human rights abuses in the Baluchistan region of the country. RSF said that, given his controversial reporting, Hussein may well have been killed “at the behest of a Pakistani intelligence agency”.
Particularly shocking was the death of 47year old Russian journalist Irina Slavina, Editor of the Koza Press news website. She died in October after setting herself on fire outside an interior ministry office in the city of Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia (ranked 150/180 countries by RSF).
Intolerance, fear of criticism or of being exposed as corrupt/dishonest, and criminality, underlie the killing of journalists and media workers in these countries and elsewhere; weak judicial systems and corrupt governments allow such crimes to go unpunished.
Methods of political control
In countries where violence is not an acceptable option for silencing pesky journalists, as well as in authoritarian regimes where it is, a variety of methods of control are employed and increasingly so: Regulation of media laws (including defamation lawsuits); financial pressure; internet shut-downs and cyber bullying; low pay, poor working conditions; the pursuit of profit and/or political advantage over journalistic integrity, and the inhibiting impact of hostile sections of the public towards the media, particularly the so-called “liberal” media. Police intimidation; arresting and imprisoning journalists without a fair trial; the (government facilitated) concentration of media ownership, which places excessive power in the hands of individuals, corporations, governments, or political authorities.
The aim of all such measures and patterns is to ensure that the media serves power (political and corporate) rather than the public. The effect is stifling and deeply concerning, however, the broader impact on democracy is even more dangerous; many democracies are under attack, experiencing a decline of political rights and curtailing of civil liberties – something Covid has further strengthened.
Such onslaughts are symptomatic of a broader reactionary trend – a conservative retrenchment arising in opposition to the impulse towards unity, social justice, and freedom in all its forms (including media freedom), that is sweeping the world. This is the preeminent movement of the age. Its inclusive qualities of synthesis, tolerance and cooperation, are diametrically opposed to the divisive, repressive ideals that are fueling, among other things, the control of the media.
As we gradually, and somewhat painfully, transition out of the old and into a new and as yet undefined time, the fight between these opposing forces and the struggle for freedom and justice will continue, and intensify. It is a fight being played out in all areas: between inclusive values which rest firmly within the hearts of many and a pernicious set of fear-ridden ideals that would perpetuate a misguided way of living rooted in separation that has created unhealthy societies and poisoned the planet.
Social justice and freedom in all its forms, including media freedom, are at the core of the fight; a fight that will be won by advocates of “the good” taking action, relentlessly calling out repression, shining a light on corruption and duplicity and highlighting acts that limit freedom and erode justice.