Silencing Critics – The War on Media Freedom

The future political direction of the United States seems to be one of the big discussion topics on everyone’s minds today. The superpower is currently undergoing major political changes under the rein of its new president, which have caused heated debates both within the US as well as internationally. One of the actions president Trump has taken since his inauguration is to declare war on what he calls “fake news”, i.e. the news that he does not agree with. While on the surface this war seems to be just another one of Trump´s tantrums, in essence it could in fact severely hurt the proudest tradition of the Western world: democracy.

The primary role of media in a functioning democracy is to hold elected leaders and public officials accountable by exposing corruption and policy failures. While most politicians accept media criticism as a basic pillar of democracy, some have been known to attack the freedom of press by attempting to silence the critical media. But a continued degradation of media freedom can diminish the quality of governance and even lead to the deterioration of democratic institutions; a restrained media cannot execute its democratic functions of keeping the public informed and monitoring the government, if it lacks sufficient protection of its freedom and independence.

Latin America provides a good example of a war on media, with many countries polling low in Freedom House research investigating media freedom worldwide. In a study from 2016,  comparing Latin American democracies with other democracies, data shows that while democratic institutions in the region have generally remained strong, the average press freedom ratings for most Latin American countries remain contradictorily low.

Mexican journalists silently marched in downtown Mexico City in 2010 in protest of the kidnappings, murder and violence against their peers throughout the country (Picture: Knight Foundation, Flickr)

Institutional violence in Venezuela and Ecuador, organized crime in Honduras, violence against journalists in Mexico, impunity in Colombia, and corruption in Brazil constitute significant obstacles for media freedom in the region. In Ecuador, the main source of pressure on media independence comes from the government: the country enforced a communication law in 2013, enabling more intrusive media regulation through policies intended to silence those critical towards the government. These measures include fining and sanctioning of critical media outlets, as well as exercising strict control on what was published about public officials and affairs.

The attack on media freedom in Ecuador along with other Latin American countries demonstrates how politicians can turn the mainstream media into their principal political rivals; by portraying them as “the enemy”, they justify taking actions against the media to suppress news coverage and, in essence, suppress democracy.

Tweet by Donald Trump, 17 February 2017 (Picture: Thomas Cizauskas, Flickr

Tweet by Donald Trump, 17 February 2017 (Picture: Thomas Cizauskas, Flickr)

Sound familiar? This phenomenon can very well be paralleled to what is currently happening in the US: President Trump has continuously been belittling and ridiculing the mainstream media, or the “enemy”, and openly favoring media channels that support his actions and ideology. When Latin American presidents launched wars on media, democratic institutions were not able to protect the media’s freedom and independence, no matter how strong they may have been. But would such institutions be able to in the United States if push comes to shove, or could Trump actually be able to limit the freedom of press if he wanted to?

The easy answer is: no. In several tweets and public statements, when faced with unflattering news stories about himself, Trump has attacked the media by saying he will reform the current libel laws to make it easier for him and other likeminded people to sue news providers. When asked about what the president actually could do about the libel laws, Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment lawyer, explained the obstacles to this plan:

“The bottom line is, it’s sort of ironic: the things he has talked about doing are the things he absolutely cannot do. He cannot loosen the libel law, both because there is no federal libel law to loosen, and because the First Amendment bars it.”

To clarify, the First Amendment halts such changes to libel laws by not only requiring proof that what was claimed was false, but also proof that what was alleged was said with actual knowledge of its falseness. Additionally, there is in fact no federal libel law to amend as it is state law. Hence, there is nothing for the congress to “change”.

While there is not much Trump could do to limit the freedom of press in the US institutionally speaking, as was the case in Ecuador, the threat against journalists is still real. The President cannot officially silence the critical media, but he can choose to continue blocking them out of public debate and carry on ridiculing them. While there is no doubt much of the media today is biased and thrive on conflict, they are essential to democracy in keeping the public informed, providing different views/angles to issues and events, and in offering a platform for political public debate. An attack on media is an attack on democracy, both of which are worth protecting amid the political challenges the world faces today.

Laura Lindström