Across the globe, a new generation of populist leaders is targeting journalists as their political enemies. Although practices and strategies differ, their intended results are similar: they avoid being held accountable for their acts.
During the International Symposium of Online Journalism 2020 (ISOJ) Katie Kingsbury, Editorial Page Editor at The New York Times, chaired the panel “All the president’s attacks: Coping with governments that weaponize social media and campaign against independent media,” where journalists from Brazil, Hungary, Poland, and Mexico discussed the impact this landscape has on professional journalism.
Ten years since the prime minister Viktor Orban rose to power in Hungary, one of the last remaining independent voices in the country is the digital native 444.hu. It was founded in 2013, already under Orbán rule, paying a high price for uncovering corruption, drawing attention to injustice, or speaking up about systemic problems.
“Last year, after I testified before the Justice and Home Affairs Committee of the European Parliament on media freedom, I was called a traitor and a foreign agent on primetime TV,” Peter Erdelyi, a senior editor and director of 444.hu, said. “When my outlet uncovered shortages in hospitals as coronavirus pandemic erupted in Europe, talking heads on the same TV channel called for our arrest.”
Erdelyi explained that 444.hu put in place safety protocols to cope with threats and intimidations coming from high-rank political figures. “We have practiced for various scenarios and prepared for what to do if someone hackles you when you’re out on assignment or just with your family. These are not perfect solutions and they won’t stop the attacks but they do help us to keep our reporters safe,” he said.
In Hungary today, 476 media outlets, newspapers, magazines, online portals, televisions and radio stations are under the tight leash of the Central European Press and Media Foundation. “This media apparatus is used to discredit and intimidate real or perceived opponents of the regime. These outlets do not feature critical opinions and nearly all political statements made within them come directly from the government,” Erdelyi said.
Orbán regime in Hungary is regarded as a model for right-wing populists around the world. He was one of the few leaders who attended Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro inauguration in 2019. The Brazilian president was a congressman for almost three decades, gaining notoriety mostly for his outrageous remarks towards women, gays, and Blacks, but also for being a supporter of the military regime that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985.
“It is part of our culture as journalists to deal with attacks from presidents, ministers, governors, mayors, senators, congressmen, and businessmen. The president, Jair Bolsonaro, however, has elevated the intensity, the frequency, and even the ferocity of such attacks,” Sérgio Dávila, Editor-in-Chief at Folha de S. Paulo. Bolsonaro has regarded the newspaper as “garbage” several times.
As one of the president’s main targets, along with TV Globo, Folha has adopted some unusual measures for a news organization. One of the most important is to have allowed a reporter to sue the president. During the campaign, Patricia Campos Melo broke the story of how businessmen aligned with Bolsonaro were responsible for funding the mass spreading of fake news through WhatsApp targeting his main opponent.
“[Bolsonaro] suggested that she had traded sexual favors for the information. [So] Patricia Campos Melo filed a lawsuit against Bolsonaro and one of his sons [congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro], specifically regarding the sexual innuendo made by the president,” Dávila said.
Main news media organizations in Brazil coordinated to stop covering the daily press conferences held outside Palácio do Alvorada, where reporters from different outlets are subject to verbal abuse of the president. The outlets are also collaborating to report on the latest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, since the country’s Ministry of Health stopped publishing totals.
“In an extremely competitive environment such as the Brazilian press, this is something entirely new,” Dávila said.
In Poland, however, journalists are watching a replay of what happened in Hungary. As recently re-elected Andrzej Duda increases his grasp on power, media organizations fear the same fate of their counterparts in Hungary.
“The biggest problem is that the populists and propagandists across the globe from Central Europe to the US, Brazil and South America are just more effective than journalists by showing a simple primitive world, finding new enemies, heating up fear and increasing polarization,” said Anna Gielewska, vice president of the Reporters Foundation (Poland) and a JSK 2019/20 fellow.
Gielewska claims for more international collaboration and support, so stories can attain a broader impact, making it more difficult to silence journalists in their countries. She also points out a key component to keep journalism alive: money.
“Not only money for stories, but also for strengthening the organizational position of the independent outlets, their leadership, and sustainability. (…) Weak media outlets striving with sustainability alone will not cope with this fundamental challenge of our times,” she said.
This is a challenge that Mexican journalists have also been facing for a long time, much before the social media boosted populist right-wing politicians. Being one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist, with dozens killed in the last decade, Mexico suffers the violence of drug cartels. Those working in regional newspapers are the most vulnerable, said Juan E. Pardinas, General Editorial Director of the newspaper Reforma. Instead of providing a safer environment for journalists, the previous administration led by Enrique Peña Nieto bought a very expensive Israeli software to spy on critical journalists, he said.
“I was an op-ed writer here in the newspaper and I was targeted. My wife was targeted. And you think in a country where you have such a threat by organized crime that the government is using its resources [to buy a ] very expensive, very sophisticated software to target someone that is writing op-eds in the newspaper. It’s some kind of joke,” he said.
Pardinas said that Mexican journalists’ situation did not improve very much under current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador. During the president’s daily press conferences, which Pardinas said are more like “monologues,” few questions are allowed and criticism is not well taken.
“If you publish any criticism, you are labeled as ‘prensa golpista,’ like you are creating a kind of a political socio-political context and narrative to push for a coup d’état… And he brings that into the narrative, that we want to reestablish the previous political system, that, as I said before, it was very dangerous for journalists.”