Independent media are essential to good democratic governance. Adolf Hitler’s minister of armaments, Albert Speer, upon his release from prison in 1966, was asked what lessons he drew from World War II 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 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. But even with a guarantee of freedom of the press in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the United States this year is ranked only 45th out of 180 countries in the annual Index of World Press Freedom by Reporters Without Borders.
Diminishing media freedom is a growing concern worldwide, and a recent study by Time magazine, summarized below, on the situation in southeast Asia illustrates the general problem.
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 (ranked at 140) overthrew an elected government, while the Philippines (133) 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 the intimidation of journalists. Matthew Bugher, head of the Asia program for Article 19, an NGO that defends freedom of information, told Time, “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 (142) had one of the region’s best newspapers. But ahead this summer’s election, Prime Minister Hun Sen dissolved the largest opposition party and arrested its leader. The nation’s last independent paper was sold to a businessperson with links to Sen. Cambodia has now relinquished any pretense of democracy.
When Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was elected in Burma—also known as Myanmar—(137) 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 (151) 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 offline,” Rachel Chhoa-Howard of Amnesty International said.
Vietnam (175), according to Human Rights Watch, arrested 41 activists in 2017. Among the more than 140 political prisoners currently in custody are activist Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (“Mother Mushroom”), a nominee 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 (148) is extending its propaganda network by means of media outlets such as RT and Sputnik, while Xi Jinping’s China (176) seeks to export its tight control of news and public affairs. Their relentless suppression of dissent provides support to other countries near the bottom of the index, such as Turkey (157).
There is some good news. Malaysia (145) recently experienced a “democratic miracle” and woke up to a new government. Voters ousted a prime minister caught up in a vast corruption scandal, and, overnight, the country became a source of hope.
Though Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who previously held that office from 1981 to 2003, earlier had little tolerance for independent media, his new administration assures that reforms will take place. 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 surveyed by the organization 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.
Speer and Lincoln 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 favor … (and) enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.”
David Kilgour, a lawyer by profession, served in Canada’s House of Commons for almost 27 years. In Jean Chrétien’s Cabinet, he was secretary of state (Latin America and Africa) and secretary of state (Asia-Pacific). He is the author of several books and co-author with David Matas of “Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for Their Organs.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.