The Covid-19 pandemic has presented a golden window to undermine confidence in the media and, in some cases, for world leaders to launch outright assaults on some of the most respected and important journalistic institutions in their countries.
Earlier this week, the Polish parliament passed a bill that could mean curtains for the country’s largest independent news channel. TVN24, a broadcaster that is frequently critical of the Polish governing party, is in part owned by the American media group Discovery. Should this new bill become law, non-EU entities will be prohibited from being majority shareholders in Polish media companies, meaning Discovery would have to sell its majority stake.
Also this week, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz put forward his plan that would effectively pull funding from the country’s oldest newspaper.
Wiener Zeitung is a state-owned newspaper and is funded by a model that requires the government to advertise jobs and make other formal announcements in its pages. Yet the paper has an independent editorial policy and has often criticized Kurz and his administration. Under the Chancellor’s plans, that funding would be gone and the paper’s main source of income taken away.
What’s shocking about these two incidents is that they are happening in democratic Western nations. While journalists elsewhere face risk of prosecution or even death threats, the fact this is happening in Europe and is part of a broader trend is seriously concerning for the media and citizens alike.
What has this got to do with coronavirus? Short answer: timing.
“In times of crisis trust in government goes up because people just want somebody to fix things, so you see people rally around the flag,” says Ben Page, chief executive of polling firm Ipsos MORI.
Page says these spikes in support provide a window of opportunity that “distracts from what you are doing elsewhere.” And if you are a politician seeking to capitalize on this, whacking and weakening the press is a relatively easy proposition. “I’m afraid journalism is one of the least-trusted professions all over the world,” he adds.
The reasons for public distrust in journalism are varied.
“One of our biggest problems as professional journalists is that all over the world, we have been accused as being part of the system and establishment,” says Pierre Haski, president of Reporters Without Borders (RSF). “So as populist movements grow and rise up against the establishment, they rise up against us.”
Haski thinks that it isn’t just populist movements that present a danger, but also mainstream politicians who are losing voters to more extreme opposition.
He points specifically to an incident in 2018, when French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly said: “We have a press that is no longer pursuing the truth … What I see is media power that wants to become judicial power.” The comments came after a member of his security team was caught on camera attacking protesters while off duty.
“In one sentence he delegitimized all media and how we operate. It was eerily close to something Trump might have said,” says Haski.
Haski is, of course, correct to note incidents like this happening before the pandemic. What the coronavirus has provided is a moment in history when a decent chunk of the public is happy with governments behaving in a more authoritarian way, populist leadership is more appealing, accurate information is literally a case of life or death and journalists are not particularly liked.
“As soon as a government decides we are in a crisis and need unity, they can cut the ground under journalists whose job it is to get to the truth because they risk becoming the traitor who is driving the disunity,” says Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at Birmingham University.
Someone who cannot be ignored in all of this is former US President Donald Trump.
Even before winning the 2016 election, Trump made slamming the press a central prong of his campaign. And in the years that followed his victory, nearly every negative news story, negative approval rating and election loss was dismissed as “fake news.”
Trump’s attacks on the media intensified during the pandemic. He regularly accused it of overplaying the threat of the virus and seemed to live in a parallel universe when it came to the numbers and science. And when the most important person on the planet does something, others take notice.
“Donald Trump gave a cue to leaders around the world that attacking the media was now fair game,” says Rob Mahoney, deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“When he launched attacks on the media (over their coverage) of his shambolic handling of the pandemic, the very moment the public needs as accurate information as possible, leaders in India, Brazil, the Philippines and Western Europe followed suit, denying the severity of the virus to cover their own failures,” he adds.
The question many are asking is what the long-term impact will be, now that going after journalists is routine in so many free, liberal countries.
The industry was already facing a lot of challenges. Proper news is expensive to make and the media landscaped has shifted dramatically in ways that have not been easy for journalism.
Modern technology has made it easier for one person sitting at home to run a website that looks as legitimate as that of a centuries-old newspaper. This has created a world in which there is no longer a consensus on facts and a significant number of people are willing to believe things that are simply not true.
This lack of consensus puts journalists who speak truth to power on one side of a debate and lies on the other.
When you put all of this into the context of an unprecedented pandemic, it’s easy to see why the past 18 months have been an ideal time for leaders to pick a side.
And as we emerge from this crisis into whatever the new normal looks like, leaders who decided to side with lies will be remembered by everyone and, to some extent, will determine what that new normal is.