GOOD GOVERNANCE NEEDS AN INDEPENDENT PRESS
Track record of several countries isn’t exactly reassuring, writes David Kilgour.
Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler’s minister of armaments, was asked on his release from prison in 1966 what lessons he drew from the Second World War and the related deaths of an estimated 50 million people. He replied that the catastrophe was primarily the result of Germans losing their independent press during the 1930s.
Abraham Lincoln, meanwhile, believed so strongly in newspapers and their role in public debate that he owned one in Illinois the year he was elected president in 1860.
Independent media are essential to good democratic governance. Yet, despite America’s well-known First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of the press, the U.S. this year stands only 45th out of 180 countries ranked in the annual Index of World Press Freedom by Reporters Without Borders.
Diminishing media freedom is a growing concern across the world, but a recent study by Time magazine on the situation in Southeast Asia illustrates the general problem. It points out, in summary: All 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations last year placed in the bottom third of the Index. In 2014, the army of Thailand (140th) overthrew an elected government. The Philippines (133rd) voted in Rodrigo Duterte, who boasted about committing murder and told journalists they could become targets of assassination.
The exponential rise of social media and smartphones encourages intimidation of journalists. Matthew Bugher, head of the Asia program for Article 19, an NGO that defends freedom of information, notes, “As the control of traditional media becomes more pervasive, and social media is the one outlet that’s accessible, governments are figuring out ways to clamp down on that as well.”
As recently as 2016, Cambodia (142nd) had one of the region’s best newspapers, but before this summer’s election, Prime Minister Hun Sen dissolved the largest opposition party and arrested its leader. The nation’s last independent paper has been sold to a businessperson with links to Sen. Cambodia has now relinquished any pretence of democracy.
When Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was elected in Myanmar (137th) after six decades of dictatorship, many hoped her party would grant freedom to the media. Instead, dozens of journalists have been arrested. Two Reuters reporters, who were investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims, have spent more than six months in prison. Suu Kyi’s government bizarrely dismisses independent media reports as “fake news.”
Singapore (151st) has a virtual government monopoly over news. Human rights observers say strict legislation, including a recently enacted anti-terror law permitting media blackouts, has been deliberately designed to limit freedom of expression. “This results in ... self-censorship by journalists and media workers, both on- and off-line,” says Rachel Chhoa-Howard at Amnesty International.
Vietnam (175th), according to Human Rights Watch, in 2017 arrested 41 activists. Among more than 140 political prisoners are high-profile activist Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, now nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and environmental blogger Nguyen Van Hoa. The Hanoi regime has also unveiled a cyber unit designed to silence critics on social media platforms.
The Index reflects the growing influence of “strongmen” and rival media models. Vladimir Putin’s Russia (148th) is extending its propaganda network by means of media outlets such as RT and Sputnik, while Xi Jinping ’s China (176th) seeks to export its tightly controlled news and public affairs. Their relentless suppression of dissent provides support to other countries near the bottom of the Index such as Turkey (157th).
There is some good news. Malaysia (145th) recently experienced a “democratic miracle” and woke up to a new government. Voters had ousted a prime minister caught up in a vast corruption scandal and overnight the country became a source of hope. Though the new prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who served in the office from 1981 to 2003, earlier had little tolerance for independent media, his new administration assures reform. He’s promised within 100 days to abolish the world’s first “Fake News Law” that gives the government power to adjudicate truths and falsehoods.
None of this is to imply that independent media are blameless. Pew Research last year indicated that there are deep divides in the 38 countries it surveyed on public satisfaction with news media. Almost three-quarters of readers/viewers oppose partisanship in the news media and many give them low ratings for impartiality.
Abraham Lincoln and Albert Speer were correct about the crucial role of independent media in accountable democratic governance. Nelson Mandela of South Africa said it best in 1994: “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference ... have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials ... have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour ... (and) enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.”
David Kilgour is the former Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa (1997-2002) and Asia-Pacific (20022003) in the cabinet of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. He represented southeast Edmonton in the House of Commons from 1979 to 2006.
A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference ... (and) enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens. Nelson Mandela.
The election of Aung San Suu Kyi after decades of dictatorship brought hopes for new press freedoms in Myanmar, but dozens of journalists have been arrested during her time in power.