In the worldwide movement away from democracy, perhaps the most vulnerable institution is the free press, and the most disposable people are journalists. If they’re doing their job right, they can have few friends in powerful places. Journalists become reliably useful to governments, corporations, or armed groups only when they betray their calling. They seldom even have a base of support within the general public. In some places, it’s impossible to report the truth without making oneself an object of hatred and a target of violence for one sector of society or another.
In recent years, reporting the news has become an ever more dangerous activity. Between 2002 and 2012, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (C.P.J.), five hundred and six journalists were killed worldwide, as opposed to three hundred and ninety in the previous decade. Even in the most violent war zones, such as Iraq and Syria, the cause of death is most often simple murder, rather than being killed while covering combat. One major shift in the years since September 11, 2001, has been the erosion of a commonly accepted idea of press neutrality. Journalists are now seen by many combatants, especially jihadis, as legitimate targets and valuable propaganda tools, alive or dead. The best-known cases involve Western reporters, from Daniel Pearl to James Foley, but the most endangered journalists are ones you’ve probably never heard of—the newspaper reporter in Tijuana,
Joel Simon, the executive director of C.P.J, has just published a book called “The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom.”
It seems strange to speak of growing censorship in an era when elections are common around the world, private freedoms have expanded even in repressive countries like China, the Internet and social media swamp our brains with indiscriminate information every nanosecond, and anyone with a Twitter account or a Facebook page can be a journalist. But Simon makes a persuasive case that the global trend is toward less, not greater, freedom of the press. “Deluged with data, we are blind to the larger reality,” he writes. “Around the world new systems of control are taking hold. They are stifling the global conversation and impeding the development of policies and solutions based on an informed understanding of the local realities. Repression and violence against journalists is at record levels, and press freedom is in decline.”
“The New Censorship” outlines four main reasons why this is so. The first is the rise of elected leaders, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the leftist Presidents of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, who use their power to intimidate independent journalists and make it nearly impossible for them to function. They exploit their democratic mandates to govern as dictators—“democratators,” as Simon calls them. They do this not only by manipulating, denouncing, and jailing critical reporters but by creating an atmosphere in which a free press is considered a kind of fifth column in the body politic, an import from the West that at best serves as a propaganda tool for outside interests—introducing alien values and stoking chaos—and at worst actively undermines national security and pride.
Demagogues like Putin and Erdoğan create tyrannies of the majority, so that the dissenting stance that’s the normal position of an independent press is easily isolated, tainted with foreign associations, and blamed for social ills. The idea that freedom of expression, along with other public liberties, is a specifically Western ideology, rather than a universal right, is increasingly common, from Caracas to Beijing. Because they have popular support, these leaders enjoy a certain protection against the familiar campaigns of denunciation that are directed at the world’s more straightforward dictators, such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un or Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah.
The second source of censorship, according to Simon, is terrorism. The beheading of Daniel Pearl in Karachi began the trend of turning journalists into specific high-value targets. The Iraq War—the deadliest in history for journalists, with a hundred and fifty killed, eighty-five per cent of them Iraqis, most of whom were murdered—worsened it, making the capture and execution of reporters a normal part of the media landscape. (For me, there was a turning point when I was reporting in Iraq in early 2004, and realized that the press sign in my car windshield offered no protection and perhaps invited trouble; I asked my Iraqi driver to take it down.) In Syria, where many foreign reporters and many more Syrian ones have been kidnapped or killed, the basic functions of journalism have all but ceased.
The extreme violence of conflict today is actually amplified by technological progress. Armed groups no longer need to keep journalists alive, because they have their own means of—in the terrible cliché—“telling their story”: they can post their own videos, publish their own online reports, and tweet to their own followers, knowing that the international press will pick up the most sensational stories anyway. “The direct links created between content producers and consumers make it possible for violent groups to bypass the traditional media and reach the public via chat rooms and websites,” Simon writes. “Journalists have become less essential and therefore more vulnerable as a result.”
Another casualty of technological change is the foreign news bureau—the presence of large numbers of correspondents in places like Sao Paolo, Nairobi, and Jakarta. Simon got his start as a stringer in Mexico City in the early nineties. The system was obviously inefficient, with a dozen or two Americans all reporting the same thing for papers up north, and therefore doomed to “disruption.” But as the decline of traditional media closed foreign bureaus all over the world, critical reporting has been left to local reporters. Many of them are talented, enterprising, and courageous, and often more able than their Western counterparts to work up sources and get to the heart of the story. But their position is also far more precarious. They have no wealthy foreign news organization or influential foreign government to back them. The only government around, their own, might want them dead. In countries like Mexico, the Philippines, and Pakistan, local journalists are the target of brutal campaigns of intimidation and murder by shadowy secret services or armed groups, from narco-traffickers to Islamists.
Finally, there’s the invisible global hand of digital surveillance. The Chinese have perfected its use; the Iranians are getting better all the time. In this country, with the Snowden revelations, there’s a pervasive sense of being monitored, which has pushed many journalists to the routine use of cryptography to protect their sources. And there’s an ambiguous set of signals from the current American government, which promises never to jail journalists for doing their job, but uses the considerable power of the state to plug any leaks it deems harmful. In the age of mass data collection and shifting definitions of journalism, no one knows the rules or how they might be abused and broken.
Simon’s book confirms an idea I’ve had about the fate of institutions in the information age. Despite its promise of liberation, democratization, and levelling, the digital revolution, in undermining traditional forms of media, has actually produced a greater concentration of power in fewer hands, with less organized counter-pressure. As a result, the silencing of the press, otherwise known as censorship—whether by elected autocrats, armed extremists, old-fashioned dictators, or prosecutors stopping leaks with electronic evidence—is actually easier and more prevalent today than it was twenty years ago.
In America, the press is held in perpetually low esteem, even when it does its job well. Despite the power of the N.S.A. and Google, censorship is not the problem here. We don’t suffer from “democratators” or from simple murder. We suffer from the loss of facts—a body of empirical information that American citizens can accept as a common starting point for public debate. We suffer from the loss of faith that our institutions can be shaken up and reformed under the scrutinizing pressure of an independent press. We suffer from irresponsible leaders and an ignorant public. Democratic erosion takes many forms—the hardest to see can be the ones in front of our faces.