Reporting emerging authoritarianism

Traditional authoritarianism, new tendencies, and the future of the journalistic profession under autocratic regimes were only a few of the topics touched upon on 6 April, 2017 by a panel of specialists at the International Journalism Festival.

Yavuz Baydar, co-founder of the independent media platform P24; Tamas Bodoky, founder and Editor of the independed NGO; Alexa Koenig, Executive Director of the Human Rights Center at UC Berkley; and John Nery, Associate Editor and Opinion Columnist at the Philippines Daily Inquirer, discussed the role of journalists in countries subjected to an emergence of authoritarian tendencies within the government.

Starting off with a surprised remark about the presence of a US academic on a panel regarding autocratic power, Koenig began her contribution with a brief description of the alarm signals journalists should pay attention to when reporting on their governments. Among the first steps taken in the establishment process of a regime system is a discrediting campaign undermining the role of important opposition figures, such as activists, or critical individuals or groups, such as journalists.

An extension of the powers wielded by the executive branch of government to the detriment of the other ones – the judiciary and the legislative in the case of the US – usually accompanies the smearing campaign of the press. To Koenig, 9/11 and the approach of the Bush administration to terrorism and the rules of war have set the basis to the development of the current Trump government, who ran a campaign based on emotions much like President Bush did following the Twin Towers’ attack to justify his governmental decisions. “For the people who support Trump, facts are irrelevant: they’re based on emotions.”

According to Koenig, the United States was taken by surprise by the Trump phenomenon, and is now adjusting to avoid becoming a stereotypical example of authoritarian regime.

She then proceeded to outline the two types of authoritarian tendencies that have emerged in the last few years: a traditional form, based on the individual and personality, carried out by a structure with clearly set loyalty framework; and a more bureaucratic form of authoritarianism, where ideology leaves space to a more pragmatic approach of government at the hands of military officers or technocrats.

Koenig stated that there is a potential for journalists to push back on the rise of authoritarian figures, and that they should do so by expanding their area of focus to analyse not only the individual figure of authority but also the people he or she surrounds himself/herself with in order to fully comprehend the mechanisms behind government’s decisions. In the specific case of the United Stated, journalists should avoid normalising controversial political decisions – repression of minorities and the press, misogyny, etc. – as people with authoritarian tendencies attempt to create around them a reactionary environment, usually inspired by what they perceive as a more traditional historical period.

“The strength of the United States is the diversity of its journalists and their flexibility,” she said inviting media professionals to report as much as possible on women and refugees/immigrants in position of power to counteract the divisive and sexist rhetoric that has characterised the Trump administration during the presidential campaign and the first three months of the presidency.

Yavuz Bayder

Koenig then gave the floor to Yavuz Baydar to discuss the current situation experienced by journalists under the Erdoğan government.

Baydar, who has been living in exile in Southern Europe since the failed coup that took place in Turkey during the summer of 2016, briefly talked about the upcoming referendum of 17 April 2017 that will give the citizens the opportunity to vote on 18 amendments to the Turkish constitution.  The amendments have been widely criticised by opposition parties and non-governmental organisations who have concerns on the possible erosion of the separation of powers.

“In such a situation, referendums show that the people are likely to vote yes, and this will have consequences, partly on its [Turkey’s] borders.”

Baydar discussed the origins of Erdoğan’s power, arguing that his drive government had been fuelled by the obligations generated by his family ties rather than from a “Nazi-type, premeditated ideology with a micromanaging structure of regime.”

The AKP rose to power through a never-before-seen approach, promising reforms and civil supremacy over military rule, but ultimately – due to the party’s links to the Muslim Brotherhood – its members began to favour the use of religious rhetoric to foster support. To Baydar, this change of attitude was the demonstration that, other than in Tunisia,  “democracy and Islam are not compatible.” His remark was later questioned by a member of the public suggesting that, rather than a problem of compatibility between democratic forms of government and Islam, in Turkey it was an issue of weaponising religion. Baydar replied by stating that is was a matter of context.

The Turkish journalist also explained to the public that one of the main issues in the country is the disappearance of investigative journalism due to crack downs from the government, starting in the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests in 2013 and reaching peak critical conditions after the failed coup in July 2016.

“The defining feature of authoritarian tendencies is the suppression of investigative journalism,” said Tamas Bodok discussing his work as head of an independent investigative journalism NGO in Hungary. Until 2010, Bodok had been working for a mainstream publication, but was forced to quit after he began to feel increasingly censored following the rise to power of Viktor Orbán. “The only good media to the authoritarian regime is the one they can control.”

Bodok described how most of the formerly-public media services began to be infiltrated by government loyalists, resulting in the erosion of media freedom in favour of state-sponsored propaganda – such as the one depicting refugees as terrorists that has, over the years, fostered a deep sense of mistrust and hatred towards immigrants among Hungarians. He talked about how the government systematically took over media companies, using tax-payer money to buy its way in  to transform them in government-friendly services.

Tamar Bodoky

He labelled the Hungarian government as a form of ‘intellectual authoritarianism’, a regime that does not rely on police or military support to sustain its influence. He justified the stance of the government to forego the close relationship with the military by explaining that the “police had a very bad experience in 2006 when they cracked down on political protests by hitting dissenters,” and were heavily criticised by public opinion. “They follow the rules now.”

Moderator John Nery discussed his work as investigative journalist under the Duterte government in the Philippines, and his focus on a series of killings connected to the President’s war on drugs. Nery’s story about an evening on the streets of Manila, where he witnessed the recovery of five dead bodies, was picked up by the New Yorker, and sparked Nery’s decision to keep an updated list of deaths connected to Duterte’s policies regarding narcotics in the country.

As of early 2017, the ‘Kill List’ included around 7,000 victims, many of which were of innocent – including a five-year old girl – according to the police. Despite his policies, Duterte remains extremely popular in the Philippines, but while his popularity is wide it does not run deep. “Opinions can change,” said Nery.

Over the years, Duterte has shown signs of willingness to further expand his powers and has often complained about the presidency not being enough to him. In spite of his evident thirst for power and repeated threats to the press, the President remains as affable as ever and continues to give journalists the opportunity to interview him.

Reaching the conclusion of the panel, members of the audience asked Baydar and Bodoky to advise their colleagues in the United States on how to continue successfully doing their jobs under the Trump presidency.

Bodoky said that the livelihood of media professionals under authoritarian regimes does not actually depend on them, but rather on the ownership of the services they work for. In Hungary, the proprietary power is in the hands of oligarchs who have ‘a very good relationship with the government,” resulting in the transformation of public media services into government mouthpieces.

Baydar cited the results of several surveys published in 2015 showing that the main source of information in most countries today is television, remarking that those few who ‘control the TVs control pretty much the whole media.’

“Stick to strengthening the public broadcasting [services], stick to strict regulations of media ownership, and fight until your last drop of blood.”