Free Media and Democracy in the Age of Elected Demagogues | Kunda Dixit

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There was a time when the challenges to a free media and democracy came from  dictators, authoritarian regimes, or in countries taken over by tyrants.

No more. Today, the threats to open society in South Asia and around the world stem from elected demagogues. Champions of freedoms like the United States, the world’s largest country with free elections, India, one of the early pioneers of democracy in Asia, the Philippines, and others have all elected leaders who are enemies of democracy.

These threats have coincided with a deep economic crisis in the mainstream press,  which cannot fulfil its role of checks and balances adequately because of competition from the Internet and the collapse of the revenue model.

Truths that we thought were self-evident are being challenged. New technologies are making the press irrelevant. The erosion of press freedom is eroding democracy.

In South Asia in the last five years, we have seen the rise of the alt-right. In India, despite a long tradition of freedom of expression, trolls and vigilantes are on the loose – silencing journalists with threats and even death.

The Philippines elevated a self-confessed death squad gang leader to the office of president. Turkey’s elected president has unleashed a draconian crackdown on dissidents. After Brexit, there has been a rise of the wrong right across Europe. Just when we thought America’s president couldn’t tweet anything more shocking, he surprises us every morning.

Western democracies come with a design defect: they permit the unrestricted freedom to express the most extreme and despicable views. Populist politicians use these freedoms and the global dissemination tool of social web platforms to stoke xenophobic fears about migration, crime, and terrorism. Social media is used to manipulate voters at election time.

Democracy has been used to elect demagogues. Despots have learnt to exploit the disarray among traditional democratic political establishment, and their lack of accountability and chronic failure to deliver development and services. And once they are elected to power, they proceed to dismantle the very institutions of democracy that got them there.

Germany saw all this happen in the 1930s. In an op-ed, Jochen Bittner of the German newspaper Die Zeit called the present worldwide anti-democratic wave ‘Orderism’ — it is based on fear of disorder and chaos, offering stability over freedom. He compared Orderism to the promises of utopia under Communism, and said ‘it is merely a fig leaf for tyranny.’ The enemy of Orderism is liberal democracy, and in this Putin, Trump, Duterte, Erdogan, and others have a mutual admiration society.

In South Asia, there has been a yearning for strongman rule that stems from an unaccountable elite that has rigged the system to get elected over and over again. Dynastic politicians and reckless rulers have contributed to political instability and democratic decay, and South Asians envy the order they see in East Asia.

Many in South Asia are fed up with the squalour of our cities, crumbling infrastructure, and endemic corruption. Yet, even though surveys have shown that we still strongly believe in democracy, we look longingly at Malaysia, Singapore, or China as role models. There is a belief that East Asia’s limited democracy is a better formula for economic growth.

But we have all tried strongman rule before in South Asia, and our experience has not been very encouraging. In fact, our strong men (and women) have tended to be as corrupt and despotic as our elected leaders.

The only time South Asian countries have had the least corrupt and most accountable leadership is when we have had interim electoral governments made up of unelected technocrats. You have to be really lucky to have a Lee Kwan Yew, who showed that a visionary leader can deliver and be accountable even with limited democracy.

Every day there is growing evidence that the election upset in the United States and other countries was due to manipulation of media, especially social media. Post-truth journalism was out of sync with the masses, and the social web was hijacked by bots and fake news sites.

Facebook in particular has come under intense scrutiny for doing nothing about its toxic ecosystem of falsification, even before the revelations about how Cambridge Analyticas tole and sold personal data for targeted messaging at election time.

This has led some to question the media’s adherence to the doctrine of false equivalence — the journalism rule under which reporters are required to give equal weight to both sides in an argument, even when one side is deliberately lying or saying something incendiary. The mantra of objectivity is now challenged by the argument that it is more important to be truthful than neutral.

This bit of soul-searching comes at a time when media everywhere is under siege. It has either been forced by commercialisation to abandon its public service remit, or it is being seriously challenged by hate content on the social web.

The word ‘demagogue’ comes from the perfectly wholesome Greek word for ‘a leader of the people.’ It took on a derogatory connotation only because the Athenian upper class despised the proletariat. Demagogues today are able to manipulate the media at election time to whip up chauvinism and intolerance. Journalists who adhere to rules of objectivity lose their relevance in this frightening Orwellian combination of 1984 and Animal Farm that we see unfolding around us.

The emperor doesn’t like it when we point out that he is naked. Power doesn’t like it when you speak truth to it. They try to intimidate and harm the messenger. Government agencies controlled by elected autocrats are now smarter. They have learnt that jailing journalists attracts needless international attention. So, they have refined their methods — censorship today is achieved by behind-the-scenes threats, which can be even more insidious and sinister.

It was easier to deal with old-fashioned censorship. At least you knew who the enemy was, and we took it as our noble duty to defy it in the defence of democracy and the free press. But what do you do when the threats to press freedom do not happen in a totalitarian state, but in elected democracies where the legislature and judiciary have been compromised and co-opted?

We may have to unlearn some of what we were taught in journalism school about objectivity and not taking sides. When the core values of democracy and press freedom are threatened, journalists have to become activists because they are not just defending their own freedom, but the citizens’ right to know. We in the media are just the custodians of press freedom.

In my own country, Nepal, we have seen absolute monarchy, military coups, parliamentary democracy, a war, and a shaky post-conflict transition. Throughout it all, we have experienced first-hand that the threats to democracy and press freedom come from both the extreme left and extreme right. We have seen that development is directly related to democracy; it is when villages, municipalities, and the national Parliament have elected leaders that the chances of accountability are highest.

The answer to the current crisis of democracy lies in strengthening its four pillars and separating their powers, fortifying the judiciary, legislature, executive, and the media to be more answerable to citizens so they can serve to check and balance autocratic tendencies.

And one of the critical institutions for that has to be an independent and investigative public service media. As someone famous said: the only way to fix the problems with democracy is by making it even more democratic.

Kunda Dixit is the Editor and Publisher of Nepali Times in Kathmandu. He is a graduate of Columbia University, and author of several books including Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered. He is also visiting faculty at Kathmandu University.

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