The emperor doesn’t like it when we point out that he is naked.
As the shock of Donald Trump’s victory in the US elections gives way to dismay over his choice of White House staffers and the new cabinet, the rest of the world is reminded that western democracy has a design defect which tends to throw up demagogues at regular intervals.
In our own neighbourhood, we have seen the rise of the Indian alt-right three years ago in a similar backlash against established dynastic parties in the world’s largest democracy. This year’s election in the Philippines elevated a self-confessed death squad gang leader to the office of the country’s president. Turkey’s elected president has unleashed a draconian crackdown on dissidents. After Brexit and the rise of the wrong right across Europe, it has become difficult to figure out whether it is America that is following Europe’s lead or vice versa. Probably both.
Much of the blame for the election upset in the US has gone to the media: a post-truth mass media out of sync with the masses, and a social web hijacked by fake news sites. Facebook in particular has come under intense scrutiny for doing nothing about its toxic ecosystem of falsification. Mark Zuckerberg has countered this week with a feeble defence that his social network promotes a diversity of voices, and is a technology company and not a media one. That is a convenient untruth. It is like cinema hall owners saying they are not responsible for screening movies with incendiary content.
As Trumpism takes hold, the mainstream media in the United States is questioning its adherence to the doctrine of false equivalence — the journalism rule under which reporters are required to give equal weight to both sides in an argument even when one side is deliberately lying to rabble rouse. The mantra of objectivity is being challenged with the argument that it is more important to be truthful than neutral.
This bit of soul-searching comes at a time when media everywhere is under siege. It has either been forced by commercialisation to abandon its public service remit, or it is being seriously challenged by hate content on the social web. In a parody of economic globialisation, much of the content of these US-based fake news sites have been outsourced and are manufactured in Macedonia or the Philippines.
As Barack Obama found out this week in Athens during what was supposed to be a victory lap for democracy, the word ‘demagogue’ comes from the perfectly wholesome Greek word for ‘a leader of the people’. It took on a derogatory connotation because the Athens elite looked down on the proletariat. Demagogues today are able to manipulate the media at election time to whip up chauvinism and intolerance so that journalists who adhere to rules lose their relevance in this frightening Orwellian combination of 1984 and Animal Farm.
Mainstream newspapers and tv stations do not compete against each other anymore. We all compete against fanatics that spread hate and fear in cyberspace. The real challenge for us in the so-called mainstream press around the world is what we can do when new digital platforms become the tools to twist the truth. How do we find new ways to generate content that spreads tolerance and inclusion? Are we preaching to the choir? What new dissemination tools can we use to reach beyond our silos to those who disagree?
The emperor doesn’t like it when we point out that he is naked. Power doesn’t like it when you speak truth to it, and power tries to intimidate and harm the messenger.
Government agencies have become smarter. They have learnt that jailing journalists attracts needless international attention. So they have refined their methods — censorship today is achieved by behind-the-scenes threats which can be even more insidious and sinister.
It was easier to deal with old-fashioned intimidation and censorship. At least you knew who your enemy was, and we took it as our noble duty to defend democracy and the free press. But what do you do when the threats to press freedom do not happen in a totalitarian state, but in democracies where elected despots are the enemies of free expression.
When the central values of democracy and press freedom are threatened, journalists turn into activists because they are not just defending their own freedom, but the citizens’ right to know. We in the media are just the custodians of press freedom.
Beware of fake news, Bhrikuti Rai
A Trump World, Om Astha Rai and Smriti Basnet