Freedom of the Press: A Cherished Right That Could be Plundered
We take press freedom for granted. What if one day every TV station was like Fox News?
“If You Can Keep It”
We don’t know if this actually occurred, but legend has it that during the 1787 US Constitutional Convention, a fine lady approached Benjamin Franklin and asked him, “Well, doctor, are we a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin answered memorably,
A republic, if you can keep it.
Franklin had the foresight to grasp the fragility of the newly baptized United States of America.
Freedom of the Press
Freedom of the press is a right enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution (even England has no such constitutional provision). But as Benjamin Franklin forewarned, there is no “right” of press freedom in real life. You have to fight for it. Especially when one of our political parties has all but threatened to derail it.
Before we get to that, here is how two countries’ leaders suppressed press freedom to reinforce power at the top.
Press Freedom in Russia
During the years 2011 to 2013, a relatively robust press exposed President Vladimir Putin’s brand of political repression, election fraud, and authoritarianism. Named by some the Snow Revolution, people took to the streets to challenge Putin’s unconstitutional run for president in 2012. Another rigged election and Putin’s ascendancy to president-for-life seemed imminent.
Annexation of Crimea
After Putin “won” that election, censorship laws and attacks on journalists became more prevalent. And Putin had an ace up his sleeve: create an international crisis to divert people’s attention from dictatorial aspirations in the homeland (google “wag the dog”). In 2014 Russia annexed Crimea, which happened to belong to Ukraine.
In its immediate aftermath, Parliament passed a law that forbade the press from questioning Russia’s “territorial integrity” within whatever Russian authorities considered its borders. Any reference to the military takeover of Crimea was deemed “fake news” and “disrespect for authorities.”
Invasion of Ukraine
After the February 2022 invasion, Russia intensified its war on a free press. Many independent journalists were declared “foreign agents.” On March 4, 2022, Putin signed a law imposing prison sentences of up to 15 years for those who publish “knowingly false information” (Ha!) about the Ukraine invasion. Reporting on the war became scarce.
Putin once more created an international incident to consolidate his power.
Free press advocates Reporters Without Borders ranked Russia 164th out of 180 countries in its 2023 Press Freedom Index. The US ranked 45th.
Press Freedom in Hungary
Though on the surface a Euro-democracy, with memberships in NATO and the European Union, Hungary is basically a one-party autocracy. A former Soviet bloc country, Hungary enjoyed democracy’s full bloom until the emergency of Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party. Fidesz lucked into a parliamentary majority in 2010, and Orban wasted no time dismantling democratic norms, much like former president Donald Trump tried.
Orban used many familiar methods to become all-powerful: gerrymandering the country’s political districts, politicizing government employment, and taking control of Hungary’s once-independent media. Vox Media explains:
Fidesz used the power of the state to pressure private media corporations to sell to the state or to oligarchs aligned with Fidesz. Tactics included withholding government advertising dollars, selectively blocking mergers that would allow outlets to expand, and imposing punitive taxes on ad revenue.
By 2017, 90 percent of all media in Hungary were owned by the state or a Fidesz ally…This media empire included every single regional newspaper in the country.
Boston College professor Heather Cox Richardson: “While Hungary still has elections, state control of the media and the apparatus of voting means that it is impossible for Orban’s opponents to take power.”
Freedom of the Press in the USA
The good news is that the US has a much longer tradition of press freedom than either Hungary or Russia. Despite the taunting of Donald Trump and his allies, US media remains free and robust, its shrinkage dictated by changing tastes and technology.
Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican nominee for president, has joined scores of conservative groups to coalesce around a vision of the future in which their nemesis, “the deep state,” is finally tamed. It’s called Project 2025. If enacted, federal government workers would be under the thumb of an authoritarian executive branch.
Project 2025 would put the president directly in charge of independent agencies like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which sets the rules for broadcasting and internet companies. Imagine the score-settling unleashed by a pouting president.
A Crackdown on Press Freedoms
“When I WIN the Presidency of the United States, they and others of the LameStream Media will be thoroughly scrutinized for their knowingly dishonest and corrupt coverage…Why should NBC, or any other of the corrupt & dishonest media companies, be entitled to use the very valuable Airwaves of the USA, FREE? They are a true threat to Democracy and are, in fact, THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE! The Fake News Media should pay a big price for what they have done to our once great Country!”
A democracy, if we can keep it. Keep fighting.