The 2021 International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists highlights the instrumental role of prosecutorial services, in investigating and prosecuting not only killings but also threats of violence against journalists. This year’s campaign highlights the psychological trauma experienced by journalists, and stresses the need to investigate and prosecute anyone making such threats.
To mark this year’s event, which coincided with the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to two investigative journalists, we spoke with part-time PhD candidate Erich de la Fuente, whose research looks at how government policies and practices have changed in the context of media innovation.
Mindel van de Laar: On 8 October, we learned that the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize had gone to journalists Maria Ressa from the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov from Russia. Both are strong advocates for freedom of the press, in countries that are not known for their openness and transparency. Can you elaborate on the importance of their work, in the context of their countries’ leaderships?
Erich de la Fuente: The Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov brings attention to two important topics: The importance of news media freedom and the dangerous conditions investigative journalists currently work in. Over the past few years, we have seen an increase in threats and attacks against journalists who investigate crime and corruption or criticise government policies. The fact that journalists have won this award for the first time since 1935 is very telling of how dire the situation has become for independent news media outlets.
Authoritarian regimes have long persecuted journalists with unjustifiable imprisonment and harassment, even assassinations. However, attacks on press freedom are no longer exclusively associated with authoritarian regimes. Over the past few years, some democracies have severely underperformed in this area as well. Unlike their authoritarian counterparts, the methods employed by democratic governments are less overt, often hidden under a democratic façade. These include crime and libel charges, online harassment, and, increasingly importantly, economic pressure tools. Used together, they can slowly erode a nation’s media freedom.
Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, stated upon announcing the award that “without media, you cannot have a strong democracy.” I agree, especially now that both are under intense pressure worldwide.
MVL: You focus on media freedom across digital platforms, with case studies on Chile and Argentina – both free democracies but with diverging levels of press freedom. Can you tell us more?
EF: There is a strong consensus that authoritarian regimes interfere with news outlets, as censorship and the suppression of press freedom are inherent components of that political system. Conversely, having access to various sources of news espousing different perspectives is widely viewed as a critical component of democratic governments. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that even democracies are not exempt from declines in media freedom. Since the mid-2010s, several reports by international watchdog organizations such as Freedom of the Press and Reporters Without Borders increasingly point to democratic countries experiencing a decline in freedom of the press. This discrepancy raises the question of how democratic forms of governments can and do coexist with limited media freedom. My research digs deeper into this unexpected political puzzle. It particularly examines how policy instruments employed by democratic governments influence news media freedom in the digital era. To further understand this issue, I investigated the main instruments democracies use to curb media freedom, as well as how governments employ those tools in their interactions with news media.
To do this, I conducted a comparative case study analysis between two ‘young’ democracies in Latin America (Argentina and Chile), both of which transitioned from authoritarian regimes to democratic rule in the 1980s. Both countries share similar contextual characteristics, but widely diverged in their press freedom levels during the period studied (2000-2015). I also conducted a survey in both countries with journalists who cover government-related issues, and personally interviewed some of the top subject-matter experts from various areas of society in each country: Media owners, journalists, government officials, academics, business sector executives, and representative from nongovernment organisations.
Comparing responses from various experts enabled my study to identify points of consensus and contention regarding government pressure instruments. This allowed me to identify patterns in the two countries that can be tested in future case study research to observe whether they, or variations of them, are found in other young democracies underperforming in press freedom around the world.
While findings point to issues in both cases, Argentina significantly underperformed in press freedom, primarily due to its government’s implementation of policy pressure instruments against critical media. These included various subtle economic pressure tools and harassment tactics, both on- and offline.
MVL: Your research deepens our understanding of how government policies and practices have changed in terms of media innovation on the one hand and press freedom on the other. Do we see much variation across countries?
EF: The eruption of digital technology profoundly changed how news media disseminate information, as well as how citizens consume it. Many expected that digital media would enhance interaction among citizens, spark a free exchange of ideas, and enable the rapid spread of information beyond the reach government control. However, that exuberant optimism began to recede as governments adapted their pressure tools to use digital technologies to their advantage and neutralise dissenting viewpoints.
Autocratic regimes focused on direct control of information by interfering with digital technologies, restricting who could access them and what information was communicated. Internet service shutdowns were a preferred tool early on, but that method increasingly became a last resort for control as governments became more sophisticated in their methods. Autocratic regimes now use several digital pressure instruments, including cyberattacks, mobile tracking, human censors, paid online trolls, and facial recognition to better suppress media critics.
In democratic systems, it is more difficult to apply direct control methods, whether on- or offline. Instead, governments often implement policy instruments under the public’s radar to slowly erode press freedom in incremental steps. This includes mechanisms that were used offline but have been adapted to exert greater pressure during the digital era, as well as new ones that employ new technologies.
This toolbox includes various economic pressure tools, such as the arbitrary allocation of government advertising to influence editorial content and government pressure on private sector companies to withdraw or reduce their private advertising in dissenting media outlets. The former had been widely used in the past, but pressure on private advertisers emerged as a relatively new phenomenon in my research’s two case studies. This is because governments understood that despite the influence of state advertising on a media outlet’s budget, it generally accounts for a much smaller portion of advertising revenue than private sector funds do. Both these instruments apply significant strain on news outlets during the digital era, as the media industry is financially struggling due to the digital transformation.
The last decade also saw a worrisome trend of emerging digital threats to press freedom, including disinformation, hate speech, content regulation, and harassment of journalists via the use of government-financed trolls. The latter increasingly targeted journalists with threats to both themselves and their families. The online harassment made it harder to connect these techniques to the government, but mounting evidence suggests that democracies also finance third-party online trolls.
MVL: Your PhD thesis is reaching its final stages. You did your research within our part-time PhD programme, while running your own company. How did you manage to combine the work, and what do you expect to gain from your PhD as a successful entrepreneur?
UNU-MERIT gave me a unique opportunity to work on my Ph.D. while managing the multinational consulting firm that I founded about two decades ago. It has taken a tremendous effort to balance those two aspects of my work, not to mention my family time, which is the most meaningful part of my life. Managing these facets includes spending many nights, weekends, and holidays at my office or a public library in order to focus on writing. It was also challenging to personally conduct the survey and expert interviews in both case study countries. But it should be hard, it should be challenging, because the harder the effort, the greater the sense of pride when you ultimately achieve your objective. Also, having escaped my native country of Cuba, where a dictatorial regime continues to imprison and torture journalists, to start over as an immigrant in a new land helps me keep my perspective on the meaning of the word ‘difficult’.
Earning a PhD in governance adds great value to my professional life. I have worked on good governance and independent journalism projects around the globe for many years and earning a doctoral degree in this field will add credibility to my work. In addition, I have also been teaching international relations at Florida International University, where I combine extensive fieldwork experience with my academic background. Obtaining a PhD will allow me to both expand my role there and become a better professor for my students.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.