As the shock of Donald Trumpâs 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 westernÂ democracy has a design defect which tends to throw up demagogues at regular intervals.
In our own neighbourhood, we saw the rise of the Indian alt-right three years ago in a similar backlash against established dynastic parties in the worldâs largest democracy. This yearâs election in the Philippines elevatedÂ a self-confessed death squad gang leader to the office of the countryâs president. Turkeyâs 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 Europeâs lead or vice versa. Probably both.
Much of the blame for the election upset in the US has gone to the media: a mass media out of sync with the masses, and a social web that was 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 diversity, and is a technology company and not media. 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 â 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 and rabble rousing. 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 the rise of the social web with its hate content. In a parody of economic globalisation, much of the content of these US-based sites have been outsourced to 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 âdemagogueâ comes from the perfectly wholesome Greek word for âa leader of the peopleâ. It took on a derogatory connotation because the proletariat was looked down upon by the elite. 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, TV stations and portals do not compete with 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 media around the world is what we can do when freedom itself is twisted on new digital platforms. 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 doesnât like it when we point out that he is naked. Power doesnât like it when you speak truth to power. Power tries to intimidate and harm the messenger. Governments have become smarter. They have learnt that jailing journalists or harming them attracts needless international attention. So they have refined their methods â censorship today is achieved by behind-the-scenes threats which can be even more insidious and sinister.
Somehow, it seems now that 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 â where elected despots are the enemies of free expression.
When the core values of democracy and press freedom are threatened, journalists become activists. They are not just defending their own freedom, but the citizensâ right to know. Journalists are just the custodians of press freedom.