Press freedoms crumble as authoritarianism spreads

The press is being pulverized in places where democracy is deteriorating, leaving the world with little visibility into how those regions are transforming under authoritarian rule.

Why it matters: The COVID-19 pandemic was already taking a huge toll on press freedoms around the world. A new wave of geopolitical tension is exacerbating the issue.


Driving the news: In Hong Kong last week, Next Digital, a media company founded by press tycoon Jimmy Lai, said it was shutting down in response to new Chinese Communist Party restrictions that made it impossible to continue operating.

  • "The climate of fear is unbelievable," said Mark Clifford, an independent non-executive director of Next Digital's board. Clifford and other members of the board resigned, citing that environment.
  • "It's not a kleptocracy, like Russia. They don't want money. They just really want to silence this voice," he continued. Beijing regulators essentially made it impossible for the company to operate financially.

The move has shattered hope among press activists that a vibrant free press ecosystem will ever be able to exist in Hong Kong, following the passage of a sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing that dramatically reduces personal freedoms.

  • Lai, who was sentenced to 14 months in prison earlier this year, was one of the most vocal pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong for years.
  • His newspaper, Apple Daily — the biggest publication within Next Digital — shut down in June after authorities froze the bank accounts for the paper and arrested its top leadership. Clifford said Apple Daily sold over 1 million copies on its last day publishing.

The big picture: Hong Kong isn't alone. Around the world, several countries that were hinging on democracy have seen press freedoms fall apart this past year in response to rising authoritarian regimes.

  • Afghanistan, which saw a vibrant press scene grow over the past two decades, has been radically transformed by the Taliban takeover last month. "Less than a month after taking power, the Taliban seem to be letting their masks fall," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire, citing reports that the Taliban has been beating and arresting journalists.
  • Belarus: Belarusian President Alexandre Lukashenko has in the past year taken drastic new measures to target the press, including drastic changes to the country’s media laws that make it much harder for journalists to report. His war on journalism made global headlines in May after leaders used a supposed bomb threat to ground a Ryanair flight carrying an opposition journalist.

Amid the pandemic, several countries, like Hungary and the Philippines, introduced "fake news" laws to curb the spread of social media.

  • Such efforts, experts argue, are not meant to quell misinformation, but rather are used to empower autocrats. Leaders of counties like Turkey and Brazil have introduced similar measures.

What's next: Press experts argue that the rhetoric from the Trump administration inspired other world leaders looking to consolidate power to target the press.

  • The world will be looking to the Biden administration to play a leading role in setting a tone around what the U.S. will deem acceptable.
  • While the Biden administration has pledged transparency domestically, it has also faced some challenges in trying to establish itself as a leader on press freedoms. Press activists condemned the administration's decision earlier this year not to sanction the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of journalist and American citizen Jamal Khashoggi.

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