To give him a bit of a break from a near-total concentration on the messy and increasingly bizarre business of American electoral politics, the editor asked J. BROOKS SPECTOR to look at a different topic. As media restrictions grow ever more constricted in many nations, Spector aims for some historical and geographical comparisons. Still, Donald Trump’s name just had to come up somewhere along the way.
The man who might be America’s next president (or perhaps he’ll just go back to flogging his name-branded steaks, wine, water and ties on November 9) recently gave a speech in which he waved his arms, stomped his feet, and roared that when he becomes America’s Il Duce, er, president, the nasty media better watch out because he would make it much, much easier to drag them into court for insulting people like his very own perfect, winning self. Fortunately for American journalism, it remains unlikely The Donald will ultimately gain the presidency, even in this most amazing of political years. And even if he did, it would be even more unlikely Congress and the courts would permit this to occur. There is just too much weight of law, custom and precedent pushing back the other way. Thank you Peter Zenger, Ben Bradley and so many others.
Still, way back at the beginning of things, the country’s second president, John Adams, had pushed successfully for passage of what became known as the Sedition Act, designed to put a stop to all that troublesome “agitprop”, emanating from American supporters of that worrisome French Revolution. Given that history, it is important to remember that no place is ever entirely immune to this kind of thing from the authorities, especially when their countries come under political, economic or social stress. South Africans should certainly be able to understand such developments rather easily, given their country’s history.
Of course, for a place like Syria, the preservation — or even the assertion — of any kind of media independence is probably the least of the population of that unhappy nation’s worries right now, given the mindboggling devastation from its civil war. But right next door, in Turkey, from a distance at least, it can seem as if the country is also bursting at its seams. There is political dissent against an increasingly imperial presidency with an ego to match, the country’s continuing struggle with Turkish Kurds (including elements who carry out extremist bombings as well as those that push rather more peaceably for a complete breakaway from Turkey), as well as the ills neighbouring Syria’s civil war can generate. There is the fierce, all-against-all fighting right at the border; the possibilities of a greater conflict with Russia, following that shooting down of a Russian fighter jet; the vast numbers of refugees seeking shelter in Turkey and, not least, the migration of so many more through Turkey on their way to central and Western Europe.
In a place like that, someone like President Recep Erdogan, what with his imperial-sized daydreams, could almost be expected to inspire a rising tide of media restrictions that have left his critics — internally and internationally — increasingly appalled. As the now effectively ex-editor of Today’s Zaman, Sevgi Akarcesme, could write in The New York Times, the other day, “The virtual control he already has of a majority of Turkey’s newspapers and TV stations apparently isn’t enough for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On Friday, with the zeal of its despotic leader, his government seized my paper, Today’s Zaman, and its parent, the Turkish-language Zaman, which is the highest-circulating daily in the country. Together, these titles were two of the few remaining independent voices inside Turkey — and Today’s Zaman, in particular, was a reliable English-language news source for diplomats, academics and expatriates.
“On Friday, a government-controlled court appointed trustees to take over the newspapers in what amounts to a politically motivated assault. At midnight, protesters faced tear gas and water cannon as riot police stormed our Istanbul headquarters. The authorities used power tools to force open the iron gate to the building. The following day, our internet connection was cut off to stop staff members from working on a special edition about the takeover. Since then, the authorities have been unplugging the newspapers’ servers, destroying our digital archive.”
Akarcesme added, “In March 2014, Mr Erdogan, who was then Turkey’s prime minister (he was elected president later that year), seemed to announce the nature of the new rule — one that involves silencing all forms of dissent — when he called for social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube to be shut down. He went on to describe Twitter as ‘the worst menace to society’. The true oppression began in 2013 after two damning corruption inquiries resulted in several cabinet ministers being forced out. Trying to turn attention away from the graft allegations, Mr Erdogan accused critics of being part of a ‘parallel structure’ organised by the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen and his Hizmet movement that was seeking to overthrow him. A witch hunt followed against bureaucrats, businesses, journalists, teachers, philanthropists and ordinary citizens with perceived sympathies for Mr Gulen, who has been living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999.”
Not too surprisingly it seems, the newest demon on the block, Twitter, and the rest of the social media netherworld — beyond the usual suspects in the more usual media firmament — has become enemy number one for authoritarian rulers pretty much everywhere. Of course this comes rather easily for some. Rulers in that part of the world cannot easily forget just how opposition to authoritarians in places like Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere, spread so widely and so deeply into their respective societies through social media as the Arab Spring unfolded.
And even before the latest round of repressive measures, the Turkish media environment had already merited serious criticism from abroad. Last year, Freedom House, an NGO that monitors and reports on things such as media independence/repression, noted in its annual report, “Conditions for media freedom in Turkey continued to deteriorate in 2014 after several years of decline. The government enacted new laws that expanded both the state’s power to block websites and the surveillance capability of the National Intelligence Organisation. Journalists faced unprecedented legal obstacles as the courts restricted reporting on corruption and national security issues. The authorities also continued to aggressively use the penal code, criminal defamation laws, and the anti-terrorism law to crack down on journalists and media outlets.
“Verbal attacks on journalists by senior politicians—including Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, the incumbent prime minister who was elected president in August — were often followed by harassment and even death threats against the targeted journalists on social media. Meanwhile, the government continued to use the financial and other leverage it holds over media owners to influence coverage of politically sensitive issues. Several dozen journalists, including prominent columnists, lost their jobs as a result of such pressure during the year, and those who remained had to operate in a climate of increasing self-censorship and media polarisation.”
Right next door, just to the North, Russia’s governmental pressures on the media there have become increasingly severe. (Maybe there is something in the air over the Black Sea or in its water?) As Freedom House reported in its annual survey, “Russia’s occupation of the Crimean Peninsula and involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine helped to drive an increase in propagandistic content in the Russian news media and tighter restrictions on dissenting views in 2014. Media outlets became more firmly incorporated into the Kremlin’s policy efforts, moving from supporting the government with biased news to actively participating in an ‘information war’ with its perceived adversaries. Ongoing insurgencies, corrupt officials, and crime within Russia continued to pose a danger to journalists who reported on them, and the remaining independent media outlets in the country came under growing pressure from the authorities.”
Ah, nothing like a little trumped-up patriotism to become that last refuge of the scoundrel, just as Samuel Johnson (and pretty much everybody else who has had a pen and some paper) first told us, way back in 1775. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
Freedom House noted further that “although the Russian constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, politicians and government officials frequently use the country’s politicised and corrupt court system to harass the few journalists who dare to expose abuses by the authorities. Russian law contains a broad definition of extremism that officials invoke to silence government critics, including journalists; enforcement of this and other restrictive legal provisions has encouraged self-censorship.
“Two new laws that took effect in 2014 significantly extended state control over the online sphere. Federal Law No. 398, signed by President Vladimir Putin in December 2013, came into force in February 2014, allowing the prosecutor general’s office to bypass the court system and order — via the state telecommunications regulator, Roskomnadzor — the blocking of websites that disseminate calls for mass riots, “extremist” activities, and participation in illegal assemblies. The law was regularly invoked against independent and opposition websites in 2014….”
The second statute, Russia’s Federal Law No. 97, was quickly nicknamed “the bloggers law”. This one, per Freedom House, “requires any blog or website with more than 3,000 daily viewers to register with Roskomnadzor as a media outlet. The legislation effectively subjects personal blogs and other sites to the same restrictions imposed on formal news outlets, including bans on anonymous authorship and the use of obscenities, and legal responsibility for comments posted by users. Separately, under Law No. 97 and a follow-up law passed in July, social media platforms and other internet companies processing Russian users’ data would have to store the information on servers located in Russia, where it could be accessed by authorities.”
Freedom House also reported that state prosecutors continue to charge journalists, bloggers and whistle-blowers with whole swathe of defamation, extremism and other trumped-up charges to keep them in check. Perhaps Donald Trump will take a study tour to Moscow to look into this, given his media predilections as well as his publicly expressed admiration for President Vladimir Putin’s strong hand on government.
And on the African continent, not everything is coming up roses either for media freedom, although there is some good news here and there. Freedom House’s Jennifer Dunham, in a recent interview, said digital media could be well positioned to give people more access to more news sources via their mobile phones and satellite TVs. Dunham adds, “Internet penetration rates are still low but the mobile phone sector is growing and more people presumably access the internet via mobile phones in Africa than via traditional computers. Also, in Africa, a lot of countries, with the exception possibly of Ethiopia, haven’t really figured out how to clamp down on the online space yet. Ethiopia is actually often overlooked by Western governments and is kind of seen as a good example of democracy but it is really one of the worst press freedom offenders in Africa. It ranked 180 out of the 199 countries in the report. Ethiopia uses an anti-terror law to continually arrest journalists.”
She went on to say, “We saw some legal efforts to control the media in Turkey, South Africa and Kenya, for example. In South Africa, the authorities extended their use of the National Key Points Act, which is an apartheid-era law that can designate important sites or institutions as off-limits. They use that provision to limit investigative reporting on those sites. In Kenya, the government passed a very draconian anti-terror law in the wake of attacks by the Islamic militant group al-Shabaab, although key aspects were struck down by the High Court. This is one encouraging example of courts pushing back against encroachments of press freedom.”
An NGO dedicated to the rights of journalists worldwide to report without danger from government, the Committee to Protect Journalists, in its annual top 10 list of the most media unfriendly nations, Attacks on the Press, explained, “Eritrea and North Korea are the first and second most censored countries worldwide, according to a list compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists of the 10 countries where the press is most restricted. The list is based on research into the use of tactics ranging from imprisonment and repressive laws to harassment of journalists and restrictions on internet access. In Eritrea, President Isaias Afewerki has succeeded in his campaign to crush independent journalism, creating a media climate so oppressive that even reporters for state-run news outlets live in constant fear of arrest.
“The threat of imprisonment has led many journalists to choose exile rather than risk arrest. Eritrea is Africa’s worst jailer of journalists, with at least 23 behind bars — none of whom has been tried in court or even charged with a crime. Fearing the spread of Arab Spring uprisings, Eritrea scrapped plans in 2011 to provide mobile internet for its citizens, limiting the possibility of access to independent information. Although internet is available, it is through slow dial-up connections, and fewer than 1 percent of the population goes online, according to UN International Telecommunication Union figures….”
In fact, in its most recent report, according to US News and World Report, “Belarus, Crimea, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were the 10 countries with the worst rankings. Crimea, which was assessed independently for the first time after it was annexed by Russia last year, and Syria were new to this ‘Worst of the Worst’ list. Independent media either don’t exist or are hardly able to conduct their activities in these countries, and citizens do not have regular access to unbiased journalism. Iran has long been one of the world’s most frequent jailers of journalists. Officials there have held Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian since July 2014, barely giving him access to legal representation.” (Rezaian was only recently released in the thawing of relations between the US and Iran since the signing of the P5+1 and Iran accord on Iran’s nuclear programs.)
This journalism business, despite all its technological advances, still remains a precarious enterprise in many places and for many people. Governments find criticism hard to swallow, and they seem loath to let those intrusive, irritating, pesky journalists get away with it.
American politician, Thomas Jefferson, its third president, a globally influential political thinker, and just incidentally the drafter of that nation’s Declaration of Independence, is always cited as the country’s apostle of press freedom. He famously wrote, “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
But, once Jefferson became president, he came to a rather different sensibility about the journalists and newspapers of his day. Or, as he wrote to a friend after he had left office, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.” And, worse, Jefferson told yet another patriot buddy, “Our printers raven on the agonies of their victims, as wolves do on the blood of the lamb.” Seems he has had plenty of company — ever since — for such views all around the globe, ever since 1807. But, fortunately, journalists persist. DM
Photo: A man reads a Zaman newspaper two days after it was taken over by the government, in Istanbul, Turkey, 06 March 2016. Zaman is the latest media outlet to face the strong arm of the government, after authorities took over other critical media outlets, including newspaper and television stations, allegedly affiliated with the movement of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Islamic preacher who fell out of grace with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent years. EPA/DENIZ TOPRAK.
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved