Democracy is in danger, and it is not at all a hidden danger: Freedom of the press is being constrained across the world, and Western democratic states are among those doing it — even if, unlike authoritarian regimes, their governments seldom get their hands dirty in the process.
In the United States and Brazil, there are no gagging orders or obvious state censorship. Instead, presidents Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro incite social division and violence by spreading fake news and employing rhetoric that is hostile to the media.
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This dangerous development can be seen not only in these two major countries on the American continent, but also in European states, including Malta, Montenegro, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic and Italy.
Media as the enemy
“Trump demonizes the media and depicts them clearly as the enemy,” Christian Mihr, the director of the German section of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), told DW. “In the past few days, we have recorded altogether 68 attacks on journalists in the United States.”
If this figure is combined with the 26 other attacks on representatives of the press documented on the online platform US Press Freedom Tracker, it means there have been 94 cases of such violence in the US alone since the start of the year.
Mihr said he saw this development coming. “Media are perceived as part of a supposed ‘system.’ This perception is very deliberately encouraged by populist presidents like Trump and Bolsonaro,” he said. According to Mihr, these two leaders want to show that they can defy this “system” and govern despite it.
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Over the weekend, during protests against the police murder of George Floyd, an African American man, a CNN correspondent was arrested while reporting on air. Two employees from the Reuters news agency and a Swedish newspaper correspondent were also injured by rubber bullets, while DW reporter Stefan Simons came under police fire.
In Brazil, major media organizations announced on May 25 that they would be suspending reporting from in front of the presidential residence in Brasilia, the Palacio da Alvorada, because of a lack of security. The TV broadcasters Globo and Bandeirantes, the leading daily Folha de S. Paulo and the news website Metropoles all stated that they would not be sending staff to the official residence any more.
As a reason for the decision, they cited the continued harassment by supporters of the Brazilian president. In one incident, they said, security forces had not intervened to protect journalists when the so-called Bolsonaristas threatened to storm the press area.
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Bolsonaro himself insults representatives of the press at regular intervals. When journalists asked him in early May why he had sacked the head of the national police, he yelled at them to “shut their mouths.” When, at the end of March, a Bolsonaro supporter accused journalists of “setting the people against the president, Bolsonaro nodded in agreement.
Council of Europe warning
Attacks on journalists and media houses are on the rise in Europe, too. According to the 2020 report by the Council of Europe’s Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists, there were altogether 142 serious attacks on journalists across 25 of its 47 member countries.
In its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, RSF warns of an increasing risk to media in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland, Greece, Croatia, Malta and the United Kingdom. It said that British authorities regularly restricted press freedom, often citing national security as a justification. In 2018, the European Court of Human Rights described the mass surveillance of journalists in the country as a violation of the right to freedom of opinion and the press.
“The way media in Britain are discredited and individual journalists are vilified wholesale often brings Trump to mind,” said Mihr from RSF Germany. He said journalists were being excluded from press conferences and that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s rhetoric verged on the “Trumpian.”
Corinne Vella, the sister of the investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, murdered in Malta in 2017, summed up the attacks on media in democratic countries in one sentence: “Journalists do not put themselves at greatest danger when they report from war zones, but when they reveal corruption in their own countries.”
In November 2019, at the Coreact conference of the organization Mafia, nein danke! (“Mafia, no thanks!”)in Berlin, Vella described it as a security risk for all Europe if journalists no longer felt safe in an EU member country.
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Christian Mihr is worried that Trump could exploit the fear of riots to promote his election campaign. He said that is why the US president and leading Republicans are very restrained in their condemnation of police violence. “It sounds cynical, but in the short run, the violence could be welcome to Trump,” he said.
The 30-year-old TV presenter had recently hosted investigative journalists working on alleged corruption involving European Union funds. She was brutally murdered in the northern Bulgarian town of Ruse in October 2018.
The 60-year-old author, Washington Post columnist and former editor-in-chief of Al Arab News Channel was last seen walking into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 to get papers to verify his divorce. His fiancee waited outside for 11 hours, and she says he never came out. Khashoggi had previously said he believed the Saudi leadership wanted to kill him.
TV news reporter Samim Faramarz was killed in September 2018 with his cameraman Ramiz Ahmadi when they were reporting from the scene of an explosion in the west of Kabul. The car bomb went off just meters from where they were just finishing a live report. Afghanistan remains the deadliest place in the world to be a journalist.
After Afghanistan and Syria, Mexico is the most dangerous nation for journalists. There were 14 journalists killed in 2017, and at least 10 more lost their lives in 2018. Mario Gomez, a 35-year-old correspondent, was shot dead by armed men as he left his home in Chiapas in September 2018. He had reportedly received death threats after investigating corruption among state officials.
Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had reported the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim villagers. They were arrested in December 2017 after being invited to meet police for dinner in Yangon. In September 2018, after 39 court appearances and 265 days in detention, they were jailed for seven years for breaching the 1923 Official Secrets Act.
A major issue in Brazil’s election campaign was corruption. Radio journalist Marlon de Carvalho Araujo focused on reporting graft, and he wrote on corruption involving officials at various levels of the Bahia regional administration. In August 2018, four gunmen burst into his home in the early hours and shot him dead.
Kashmir journalist Shujaat Bukhari was shot dead outside his newspaper office in Srinagar in June 2018. A contributor to DW, he advocated a peaceful resolution to the conflict between India and Pakistan over the mountainous region.
Editor Wendi Winters, her assistant Robert Hiaasen, writer Gerald Fischman, reporter John McNamara and sales assistant Rebecca Smith died when a gunman shot through the glass door into their office in June 2018. The man, who had filed a defamation lawsuit against the paper, was arrested at the scene and charged with their murders.
An ex-police officer was named as the killer of investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his partner Martina Kusnirova in February 2018. The murders sparked mass protests and led to the resignation of the prime minister. Kuciak had been investigating ties between government officials and the Italian mafia.
Daphne Caruana Galizia, an investigative journalist who linked Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to the Panama Papers scandal, was killed when a bomb destroyed her car in October 2017.