THERE’s a long tradition in the world of democratic politics that there exists a recognised, but unofficial, extra branch of government.
It’s an institution that acts as the watchdog for the people, an established check on government. It monitors politics to ensure that political players don’t abuse their position and has the power to expose wrongdoing and hold those wrongdoers to account.
It is the Fourth Estate, or more commonly known as the news media.
For generations the news media has played an integral and vital part in the democratic process. While often clashing with those in power, it has remained a constant in the political course of any truly democratic nation and retained a level of, though often begrudging, respect from those in power. It is recognised by both the people and politicians as an essential tool in investigating the checks and balances of any administration.
But lately it has come under attack from a most unlikely of directions.
It wasn’t not long ago that United States President Donald Trump derided James Acosta, a journalist from the news network CNN, and refused to take his question during his first press conference since his election victory.
Trump has since declared that he is in “a running war with the media”. This rhetoric and behaviour from an acting US president has shocked much of the journalistic world.
It is accepted that the media will take a certain level of disparagement and abuse – that has long been the norm – but for one of the most respected networks in the world to be dismissed entirely and having a US president declare war is unsettling.
His entire team seems determined to create a level of distrust in the media, with Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary, presenting his “alternative facts” on day one, and Stephen Bannon, the president’s Chief Strategist, announcing on Thursday that the press “should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”
But these actions and Trump’s remarks come straight from the handbook of any authoritarian regime. The incessant reinforcement of the media as an untrustworthy, self-serving institution will force the American people to question the integrity of these long-standing and reputable organisations.
Trump lashes out at reports and reporters that he deems unfavourable, labelling them “fake news” – as he did in the case of CNN – or dishonest. He threatens to cut off access to those journalists who print stories he doesn’t like and rallies his crowds against networks who report negative news about him. Every day of the campaign repeating his dislike of the “dishonest” media and slowly ingraining that distrust in the minds of his supporters, of which there are many.
But in many cases, he seems to be confusing the truth with defaming lies. Trump’s accusation of fake news aimed at CNN would have been fair had it been accurate. But there is a difference between fake news and news you don’t like.
Fake news is undoubtedly a damaging epidemic. It can hurt the democratic process and likely swayed voters in the past presidential election. But Trump and his administration have cast aside valid articles by portraying them in a negative light, questioning the credibility and accuracy of those stories.
By covering the facts, reporters now face the prospect of losing their credibility purely for doing their jobs ethically and correctly.
Reporting the truth to the people should not be a punishable offence, it should be the only acceptable approach to news journalism.
And it is not only in America where we can see the ruling powers clamping down on the freedom of the press.
There are plenty of instances happening all over Asia.
We have seen publications, such as the independent Malaysian news portal The Malaysian Insider, being shut down following their reporting on the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal involving Prime Minister Najib Razak. Also in Malaysia, several journalists and critics have been prosecuted under the newly-reinforced security law, also known as the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act. The law was enacted to fight terrorism but has on numerous occasions been used against those spoke out against the administration.
Malaysia’s Southeast Asian neighbour Burma (Myanmar) is seeing a similar rise of reporters and bloggers being incarcerated under Article 66D, under the guise of defamation of the government or military.
Elsewhere in the region, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was asked at a news conference in 2015 what the government would do to journalists who do not stick to the official line. “We’ll probably just execute them,” he replied tersely. The kingdom recently approved controversial amendments to its Computer Crime Act, creating more ambiguity in its provisions and widening its scope to enable arbitrary arrests and punishment for anyone with an opinion behind a computer.
These examples show it is troubling times for the media.
“A threshold is crossed when a head of state lets loose a stream of verbal abuse against media personnel who are just doing their work,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire explains.
“How can journalists function normally if the state that is supposed to guarantee their safety is headed by a person who holds them up to contempt, bullies them and threatens them, opening the way to abuses against the media that go unpunished.”
Under this growing assault, perhaps a new approach to journalism is needed.
Following Trump’s rebuke of CNN’s James Acosta, many journalists came forward to express their dismay and also suggest an alternative to the current competitive status quo that exists between news outlets across the world.
Taking their cue from Trump’s tirades against the media, Frederik and Bastian Obermaier, the reporters who broke the Panama Papers story last year, argued in a recent article for the Guardian, that a new wave of solidarity and collaboration between news publications is necessary.
They propose that the next time a journalist gets dismissed, the following journalist asks the same question, and this repeats until the press conference grinds to an awkward halt or the person being questioned eventually concedes.
They also encourage collaboration; from sharing information to corroborate a story to major joint projects which pool resources in pursuit of the truth. This would be a collaboration that would not only include local organisations, but would span the globe, piecing together evidence to arrive at the full picture.
Obermaier and Obermaier were referring in their article to the specific instance of investigating Trump, which may raise the question of whether going on a witch hunt is considered ethical journalism, but we believe there is something in this that we in Asia could learn from too.
The next time a publication is attacked for reporting the truth, all other publications could stand in solidarity and run the same report. Every time a journalist is prosecuted, all media outlets could run the story every day until justice is realised. And why not pool resources to collaborate and ensure the most robust stories possible are released to the public?
As Transparency International warns of the rise of the populist politician and the infringement on civil liberties that often follows them, and the Economist Intelligence Unit downgrades the US from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy”, the press and their freedom are now more crucial than ever.
These leaders need to be held to account and the people need a media that they can trust to do that.
It’s time to scrap the competitive backstabbing and remember the root and noble cause of journalism; to uncover the truth, to shine a light on wrongdoing, to ensure politicians are always working for the people, and to keep the public informed.
It is ultimately the people who will decide the fate of these politicians, exercising their will in the ballot box or on the streets in protest. And it is the news media’s job to make sure they are acting on the most reliable and accurate information possible.
We would all do well to remember that without a reliable and resolute press, there would be no well-informed populace. And without a well-informed populace, there would be no democracy.
** The views expressed in this article are endorsed by all writers and editors at Asian Correspondent