It used to be that you never picked a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel – but now leaders of all political stripes and the uncontrollable plague of fake news have laid siege against independent media around the world.
From Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Trump’s United States on the right, to López Obrador’s Mexico and Maduro’s Venezuela on the left, the free press is facing political and technological challenges not seen in a generation. With the rise of strongmen around the world declaring the media enemy number one, the proliferation of fake news sowing discord and confusion online, and the dramatic decline of traditional outlets as gatekeepers of information, journalism is struggling to fulfill its primary role: acting as the fourth estate and holding the powerful to account.
Sheila Coronel, an award-winning journalist, knows better than most how precious a free press is. Coronel reported from her native Philippines in the darkest days of the Marcos dictatorship. Now, as Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, she is an expert on global threats to media.
“If you look at it from a macro level, I think the most important threat is really the unraveling of the global consensus that has existed since the 1990s – that the press plays an important role as a watchdog of society,” Coronel outlines. “Therefore, the press’s freedom and independence have to be guaranteed.”
Coronel highlights how while the new 21st century strongmen differ on how they came to power – some are openly authoritarian, while others were democratically elected – the playbook for attacking the media remains the same.
“Leaders have created an atmosphere whereby attacks on the press become justified,” says Coronel. “I think whether they are democratically elected leaders like Duterte or strongmen who continue to have power by using more restrictive measures and by having authoritarian controls, there is almost no difference in their rhetoric. They have created a toxic atmosphere.”
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has overseen a reversal of the hard-won gains made for press freedom by journalists like Coronel. “Duterte has in effect expanded the repertoire of techniques for clamping down on the media and it’s really worrisome.” Online, a troll army is spreading his message, advocating for the brutal tactics against drug users that have defined his administration. Disinformation now spreads rapidly, and traditional press has struggled to keep up with the avalanche of fake news directing national conversation.
The technological revolution in media has obviously played a role in this. “Because technology has destroyed the business model of advertising, most of it now goes to Google and social media platforms, and we have to find new ways of funding professional fact gathering,” Coronel contends.
With such a transformation of the traditional media ecosystem, Coronel explains that the growth of independent media organizations all over the world has planted the seeds of a new media ecosystem. She highlights nonprofits like ProPublica that are establishing innovative platforms for objective online media. “But they need public support, they need readership, and they need a system of protection against libel suits, harassment, threats… and against the killings of journalists.”
How can the media, and society at large, protect a free press going forward when the information and political landscapes have changed so dramatically? “The only solution to fake news is more educated readers,” Coronel argues. As a whole, “If the press is able to keep its head above the water, being non-partisan but also critical, holding power to account while holding itself to account, then the press as an institution will weather this crisis.”