A brutal year for the free press

A brutal year for the free press

Edward Fitzpatrick, RWU director of media and public relations, a New England First Amendment Coalition and Common Cause Rhode Island board member, and a former Providence Journal columnist:

In Mexico, a severed human head was left in a Styrofoam cooler outside the offices of the Expreso newspaper.

In Slovakia, a 27-year-old journalist, Ján Kuciak, and his fiancée were gunned down in their house amid his investigation of a mafia organization.

And in the most visible case, Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi was allegedly suffocated and dismembered by Saudi agents at the Saudi Consulate in Turkey.

In all, 2018 was a shockingly bloody year for reporters, a grim year for the free press. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that the number of journalists targeted for murder in reprisal for their reporting nearly doubled to 34. And CPJ reported that at least 250 journalists were jailed for the third year in a row – a sign that the authoritarian approach to critical news coverage is a sustained global trend.

But murder and imprisonment aren’t the only tools that thugs, dictators and other autocrats are using to intimidate and silence watchdogs.

Just ask Tom Popper, an American who quit his job as editor-in-chief of The Budapest Business Journal after being told to stop writing about the politics of Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Speaking from Budapest via Skype, Popper told a class of Roger Williams University journalism students that Orban has used a variety of tactics to intimidate and co-opt the media in Hungary. For instance, Orban’s government proposed an onerous tax that would have bankrupted a major private television station there. Many media outlets avoid criticizing Orban for fear of losing government ad revenue, he said.

And in a simultaneous move, a dozen Hungarian media outlet owners just handed over more than 400 news websites, newspapers, television channels and radio stations to a foundation formed and run by Orban loyalists, he noted.

“It was frighteningly effective,” Popper said. “They haven’t had to beat up journalists. They haven’t had to disappear journalists the way Russia, Turkey do in a violent, frightening way.”

Popper said he had been writing editorials about the Orban administration’s harsh reaction to refugees. A referendum on migrants was coming up, so he considered it an important issue to weigh in on, but the publisher told him to avoid editorials about politics – especially about refugees and the referendum.

The publisher’s decision might have resulted from political pressure or the simple calculus that criticizing the government was bad for business, Popper said. Either way, he said, “Clearly, the government had scared my bosses.”

So he quit. “It’s our job to cover the news, what’s unpleasant, what the government doesn’t want us to talk about,” he said. “There is no point in publishing a newspaper if we are just going to toe the government line.”

Thousands of Hungarian journalists quit their jobs in similar circumstances, Popper said. “I was able to raise a bit of a stink, but a lot of them had to just quietly go,” he said. “Bit by bit, you find the remaining reporters are typists. They are just afraid to fight back.”

Since then, Orban has undercut other pillars of democracy. For instance, he undermined an independent judiciary by adding four justices to Hungary’s Supreme Court, and he used gerrymandering to give his party a disproportionate share of legislative seats, Popper said. But Orban’s autocratic assault began with the press, he said.

Popper, who grew up in New York, said he sees leaders in other nations – including Poland, Austria and the United States – trying to follow a similar playbook. “Around Europe, people are copying Orban’s style, copying the populism and the hard right turn,” he said.

Popper believes that President Donald Trump – who has launched a sustained attack on the media – would follow the same path if he could. “Many of Trump’s moves are following this Eastern European playbook, the populist playbook, the Putin playbook,” he said. “It’s hard to say who wrote it, but the idea is that you go after the media first. The idea is that you try to discredit them, to scare them.”

Popper told the RWU journalism students that they are entering a much different field than he entered in the 1980s. But it has never been more important to have dedicated journalists reporting the facts and holding those in power accountable, he said.

“Please do the work,” Popper told the students. “It’s important. The world needs you.”