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SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

Tipping Point: Democratic Erosion and the Assault on Press Freedom

Thursday , 28 October 2021

Scholars of history and politics are engaged in a profound debate over why democratic progress has recently slowed, or even reversed, in what has variously been described as decay, backsliding, deconsolidation, and recession. This pattern of democratic stagnation and decline remains inextricably linked to the simultaneous erosion of press freedom and independence witnessed over the past decade.


An in-depth analysis of several media-related indicators from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute dataset, conducted for this report, points to how independent media are often the first to be targeted by would-be autocrats. The findings suggest that the press is not only a “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to identifying early warning signs of democratic backsliding, but also a vital first line of defense against further assaults on democratic rights. Such findings bolster growing calls for a redoubling of support to independent media. The Global Campaign for Media Freedom, launched by the United Kingdom and Canada in 2019, has brought together civil society organizations and high-level government representatives, generating new pledges that have included the creation of the Global Media Defense Fund. The Forum on Information and Democracy recently issued a call to action for a “new deal for journalism,” urging governments and other influential stakeholders to take steps to improve funding and enabling environments for independent journalism.


Yet much remains to be done. Support to bolster independent media is a small component of international efforts to promote democracy and good governance. Even as there is mounting evidence of the importance of independent journalism to democratic health, international efforts to protect it have not kept pace with the growing threats media are facing globally. Safeguarding a free and independent press is an under-resourced and poorly integrated part of global development assistance policies. While authoritarian leaders spend heavily and pay close attention to the media as a tool for their political and economic aims, democratic reformers and international donors have largely failed to make the news media a central focus of their efforts. Insufficient attention to independent media undermines broader efforts to help slow democratic backsliding and protect democracies under threat.

By drawing on analysis of media-related variables in 16 countries representing a variety of geographic, economic, and political contexts, a number of important patterns emerge. First, media are frequently a central focus of attack by leaders working to undermine democratic freedoms in their pursuit of control. In some cases, the space for independent voices is eroded as a prelude to the dismantling of other democratic institutions. In other cases, the news media experience a slow erosion of their ability to operate freely and independently through media capture or through increasing regulations, government fees, and official threats—death by a thousand cuts. The data also suggest that aspiring autocrats learn from one another and from more established autocracies, imitating the tactics that other governments have successfully used to stifle the press.

The story is one many know all too well. The past two decades in Russia provided a stark warning for democrats—and a potential playbook for autocrats—as President Vladimir Putin methodically worked to dismantle the space for a free and independent media. More recently, the Turkish crackdown on independent journalism gained global attention when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan swiftly silenced voices of opposition around both the Gezi Park protests in 2013 and the attempted coup in 2016. As media crackdowns continue to spread across borders, the threat of democratic backsliding also grows. Eroding the ability of the media to operate independently and in the public interest paves the way for an autocratizing government to seize control. Declines in media freedom, pluralism, and independence are often part of larger efforts to silence public debate and dissent. Despite variations between countries and contexts, the dismantling of independent media systems as part of the autocratization process is remarkably similar. The sequences and paces may differ, but in every case examined as part of this study, autocrats have worked methodically to shrink the space for democratic media as they have consolidated power.


Key findings
The majority of people now live under illiberal regimes or some form of autocracy as a consequence of democratic declines occurring globally since 2010. Understanding the driving forces behind this historic setback to democratic progress will be essential for turning the tide. An analysis of media indicators in the Varieties of Democracy Institute’s global index illustrates a common pattern in countries experiencing democratic setbacks, with important implications for action. Time and again, would-be autocrats seek to methodically dismantle press freedom and independence as an early step towards consolidating power. Analysis of this trend bolsters a growing international effort to support and safeguard independent media as a strategy for revitalizing democratic progress.

– Attacks on independent media are warning signs of deepening autocratization. Early intervention to protect a free press is critical for preventing further erosion of the space for democratic dissent and free expression.

– The process of silencing independent journalism is often slow and gradual. This quiet erosion of media independence and pluralism allows autocrats to flood the information space with partisan, propagandistic media.

– Illiberal regimes learn from one another, using tactics and strategies to silence independent journalism that have proven successful in similar contexts.

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