Press Censorship is Under Threat in 2 Ways
From Florida to Hungary, press freedom is threatened in ways that don't include jail.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of press censorship. There is hard censorship, which is deployed by Russia, China, and other authoritarian countries. Tactics include threats to journalists, imposing prison sentences, or even murdering journalists. Governments also block publications on the Internet or shut them down completely. This kind of censorship is on the rise. According to Freedom House's annual "Freedom in the World" rankings released March 9, the number of countries and territories that have a score of 0 out of 4 on the media freedom indicator has risen from 14 to 33 since 2005.
But there is a second, more insidious form of censorship -- soft censorship. This includes granting public funds for pro-government outlets, legal pressures, and abuse of regulatory authorities. While this censorship is more indirect, there are reasons to believe that it is on the rise, and possibly headed for the United States.
This softer version of press censorship exists in backsliding democratic countries like Hungary. Freedom of the press is protected in the constitution, independent outlets exist, and the government doesn't imprison journalists. However, the government funnels large amounts of money to pro-government outlets, and remaining independent outlets are threatened with probes from the tax authorities. In 2021, a consortium of journalists revealed that Hungarian authorities used Pegasus spyware to illicitly hack into the smartphones of some of the country's leading independent journalists.
In the United States, press freedom remains vigorous -- according to Freedom House, it scored a 3 out of 4, noting that it has "some of the strongest constitutional protections in the world." The bedrock of U.S. press freedom is the 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times v. Sullivan, which allows defamation suits to win only if the plaintiff can prove "actual malice," allowing the press -- and private citizens -- to pursue vigorous oversight of public officials without worrying if erroneous statements of fact will cost them in court. (Dominion Voting System is suing Fox News for defamation, trying to prove "actual malice.")
But this could change: the top two frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 have been critical of Sullivan. Donald Trump has called the "actual malice" standard an "impenetrable shield to the media, allowing it to publish defamatory statements targeting political enemies." A bill moving through the Republican-dominated Florida legislature and headed for the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis would lower the "actual malice" standard to "inherently improbable” and allow anyone accused of discriminating on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation to claim defamation and sue for a minimum of $35,000. (Last month, he hosted a roundtable to discuss the “damaging impacts of defamation from the legacy media.”) It's unclear if there are the votes on the Supreme Court to overturn the 9-0 decision in Sullivan, as two conservative justices have called for it to be revisited. Press freedom has been put on the table as a matter of debate, when it hadn't been for decades.
Some governments like India use both soft and hard censorship. In a New York Times op-ed published on Mar. 8, journalist Anuradha Bhasin wrote that many outlets in the war-torn province of Kashmir "have become blatant government mouthpieces just to stay in business." BBC offices in India were raided by tax authorities, after it released a documentary about the question of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi's complicity in anti-Muslim pogroms while he led the state of Gujarat. Several journalists have been detained or jailed. The Biden Administration has had nothing to say about India's crackdown. Ostensibly wary of alienating India's government as it tries to shore up global support against Russia and China, the State Department has just said that it raises human rights issues privately.
However, with internal and external pressure, these moves towards censorship can be rolled back. After protests rocked the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and the U.S. and European Union, which Georgia seeks to become a member of, objected, on March 9, the ruling party withdrew a Russian-style "foreign agent" bill, The measure would have required independent media (as well as NGOs) to register with the government as "agents of foreign influence," putting them at risk of heavy fines for noncompliance.
The free press, along with an independent judiciary and an engaged civil society, serve as bulwarks against authoritarianism. When the press gets muzzled, democracy itself is often next in line to be gutted.
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