free and unfettered news media has long been anathema to authoritarian rulers,
but even George Orwell might not have anticipated that some of the most
unscrupulous assaults on press freedoms would one day be perpetrated by
democratically elected governments. Witness these recent events:
Earlier this week Maria Ressa, founder of an online news site critical of the Philippine government of President Rodrigo Duterte, turned herself in to face charges of tax evasion on her return from receiving an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Mr. Duterte has long harassed Ms. Ressa and her start-up, Rappler, and other independent media critical of his murderous campaign against drug dealers and drug users. At one news conference, Mr. Duterte warned a Rappler reporter not to come to his hometown, Davao City, because “something bad will happen to you.” Davao is thought to be home to the most vicious of Philippine vigilante bands, the Davao Death Squad.
The week before, more than 400 news outlets in Hungary, including the leading online newspaper and all remaining regional newspapers, were “donated” by their owners — many of them oligarchs loyal to Prime Minister Viktor Orban who had been systematically buying up outlets — to a foundation run by Mr. Orban’s cronies. Poland under the nationalist Law and Justice Party has been stymied by civil society in its more brazen attempts to emulate Hungary, but the public broadcaster has become something of an ideological mouthpiece.
The infamous state-ordered murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of the Saudi crown prince, is in a class of its own, and Saudi Arabia is emphatically not a democracy, illiberal or otherwise. But President Trump, the leader of the world’s premier democracy, has added to his other trespasses against the press by refusing to criticize the kingdom and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite evidence that the powerful heir must have been behind the grisly execution.
President Trump’s own assault on the press includes his trademark dismissal of any reporting that riles him as “fake news” and his inflammatory depiction of the news media as the “enemy of the people.” His attempt to strip White House press credentials from CNN’s Jim Acosta on the phony pretext that he had “laid hands” on a White House intern may not be in the same league as the exploits of other autocratic press bashers — the credentials were restored by a judge in a heartening affirmation of America’s legal institutions and the First Amendment — but the president’s disdain for fact, immunity to shame and inability to stomach criticism have offered solace to illiberal comrades.