The only thing authoritarians hate more than a free public is a free press, given that the latter can help arm the former with knowledge and impetus to push back. But as “fake news” goes from being an American meme to a global phenomenon, despots worldwide are taking note, invoking it in their familiar but growing crackdown on reporters and journalists.
As Vice News reported:
The annual prison census, carried out by the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), found at least 251 journalists languishing in prison on Dec. 1, 2018, the third consecutive year at roughly that level. But of those 251, a record 28 were behind bars on charges of “false news,” a big spike from just two years ago, when there were nine such cases.
Egypt accounted for the most cases of journalists jailed for so-called false news, with 19 behind bars. There were four in Cameroon, three in Rwanda, and one each in China and Morocco.
The report pointed the finger at Trump as “the leading voice” fueling global rhetoric about fake news. “You think #FakeNews rhetoric doesn’t have consequences?” tweeted the report’s author, CPJ’s editorial director Elana Beiser.
It also noted that while no journalists are imprisoned in the U.S., reporters there faced fatal violence and hostile rhetoric. In June, five people were killed in a mass shooting at the offices of The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, and a mail bomber who embraced Trump’s media attacks sent threatening packages to CNN headquarters, among other places, in October.
To make matters worse, the uptick in state-sanctioned violence and repression of journalists is looking like a long-term trend:
It’s the third year running that the number of reporters behind bars has topped 250 — a stat that suggested that “the authoritarian approach to critical news coverage is more than a temporary spike,” and had become “the new normal,” according to Beiser.
The report found the high numbers had been sustained by renewed crackdowns in China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, which, along with Turkey and Eritrea, were the five leading jailers of journalists. Turkey, China, and Egypt alone accounted for more than half the world’s jailed journalists for the third year in a row.
The report found that nearly three-quarters of jailed journalists were facing anti-state charges, such as supporting groups deemed to be terrorist organizations, and the vast majority — 98 percent — were jailed by their own governments.
Considering that the balance of power is shifting to the developing world, most of all China, the normalization of constraining a free press sets a very concerning precedent. But when even the ostensible leader of the free world has embraced hostile rhetoric towards media, it is unlikely that this problem is going away any time soon — even though the need for a free press is more important than ever.