October 28, 2020

While America Looks Away, Autocrats Crack Down on Digital News Sites

Like many American media types, I spent a lot of time last week reading heated arguments about free speech. I was wondering if I, too, could count myself as a “veteran of the Twitter wars” when Steven Gan distracted me by telling me about his car.

Mr. Gan, the co-founder and editor in chief of Malaysia’s most important political news site, is leaving his hatchback at home on Monday morning and catching a ride to court with a colleague. That’s because Mr. Gan thinks there’s a good chance he’ll be going straight from the courthouse to jail.

The nominal charge against him is contempt of court, a charge brought because his site, Malaysiakini, briefly hosted user comments insulting the judiciary. But his real crime, in the eyes of the government, appears to be his years of straightforward journalism, often chronicling the corruption of the faction that recently retook power in Malaysia.

“Power is consolidating power” around the world, said Maria Ressa, the co-founder of the Filipino site Rappler, who has been watching with alarm and sympathy from Manila, across the South China Sea. “By taking out independent news groups, it’s easier for the voice with the loudest megaphone to shape reality.”

Ms. Ressa, who is currently out on bail after a conviction under a new “cyber libel” law, has emerged as perhaps the world’s best spokeswoman for journalism that confronts power. That power, in her case, is the Trump-like Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte, who ranted last week about the “bright girls” attacking him and said he was compiling information on Ms. Ressa, in particular.

I first met Ms. Ressa, and Mr. Gan’s co-founder, Premesh Chandran, and a half dozen digital media entrepreneurs from difficult places when I was running BuzzFeed, a high-profile new newsroom. They often came to our gleaming Manhattan headquarters, sat with me at long tables in our cafeteria and asked advice from an American company that was leading a global explosion of digital media outlets.

ImageMaria Ressa, the co-founder of the Filipino site Rappler, after her conviction in June under a new “cyber libel” law. She has emerged as perhaps the world’s best spokeswoman for journalism that confronts power.
Credit…Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

It quickly became clear that the premise of those conversations was ludicrous. I should have been seeking their advice. They had, on shoestring budgets and in the face of unrestrained government pressure, created the kind of mission-driven, scrappy and successful news sites that American start-ups dreamed of becoming. Malaysiakini, founded back in the long-ago Slate era, the 1990s, built the sort of robust subscription business that almost everyone is now trying to generate. When government attacks cost Rappler a third of its advertising in one month in 2018, it began doing data analysis for businesses to keep itself afloat. The Russian site Meduza started what became a breakout podcast network with a couple of microphones in a cramped apartment in Riga, Latvia. Its app includes a special setting for users in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, who would otherwise be blocked.

And then there’s their physical courage. Mr. Gan could well be in prison by the time you read this. Ms. Ressa is awaiting her appeal. Lina Attalah, the editor in chief of one of Egypt’s few remaining independent voices, Mada Masr, was arrested while interviewing an activist in May and is also out on bail. A Meduza correspondent was held by police in Moscow for two nights on trumped-up drug charges last summer.

“They are the little Gaulish village holding out against Rome,” marveled Naresh Fernandes, the editor and co-founder of Scroll, an Indian news site. Scroll, like the Hong Kong Free Press, represents a different strain in the current crisis for independent media — both are digital outlets in countries now rolling back their once-robust free press traditions.

The reporters and editors of this global generation of digital start-ups are, pound for pound, the most impressive journalists in the world. Their high-impact, low-cost model is seen as “the future of journalism in places where investigative or accountability journalism is difficult,” says Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The attacks on them are a tribute to their power, to an independence that reflects the best promise of the internet and to the threats they pose to corrupt and autocratic leaders.

Credit…Roger Anis/Associated Press

But these outlets are now in more danger than ever. Even as they are facing the same advertising challenges from Facebook and Google —  and now an economic crisis —  that have stalled the growth of American digital media, they are contending with autocrats who increasingly draw their attacks from a common playbook. Many governments around the world are looking to an alternative model in China, which puts tight controls on domestic media and is in the process of imposing its stifling regime on Hong Kong. And digital upstarts aren’t the only ones feeling it — in the Philippines on Friday, Congress voted not to renew the franchise of the country’s main broadcaster, and Russia is pursuing treason charges against a respected former print journalist.

The coronavirus crisis, meanwhile, has given governments from Thailand to Cambodia to Hungary an excuse to crack down on independent media. The pandemic is also creating new tensions between authoritarian governments that seek to control the story of the spread and international outlets that, as domestic crackdowns intensify, can still sometimes report freely and be read locally online.

And then there’s President Trump. It can sometimes be hard to put your finger on the concrete effects of his corrosive rhetoric, but you can look to media around the world to see them. American private and nonprofit investment, and official political support, through the years had been a double-edged sword for independent media. That support helped new outlets around the world get a foothold, but the American connection could also be used to accuse them of disloyalty.

President Trump appears to have laid down the sword entirely.

Credit…Jason Andrew for The New York Times

“The knowledge that the United States and other Western democracies are going to be on your case often deters authoritarian leaders from taking these kinds of actions,” said Representative Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, who was assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor in the Obama administration. Not any more. Now, he said, “the official policy of the president of the United States is that free and independent media are the enemy of the people.”

Last week, in a particularly clear signal to autocrats around the world, the Trump administration began refusing to renew visas for Voice of America employees, some of whom may be driven back into the arms of authoritarian governments they’ve been criticizing on the American airwaves.

A State Department spokesman, who spoke (despite his title) on the condition he not be named, said, “The department speaks both publicly and privately about the importance of independent media and on specific cases, where appropriate, and will continue to do so.” He added that the secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, “has called on all governments to release journalists jailed for their work and to hold accountable those who commit crimes against them.”

The American media is now convulsing over questions of speech, important fights with real stakes, particularly when it comes to the decisions made by and for the giant tech platforms. But the overriding lesson from President Trump’s admirers around the world is obvious: that the ultimate, most severe threats to a free press come from governments, which, to justify their actions, have seized opportunistically on causes ranging from requiring platforms to moderate posts to cracking down on “fake news” to imposing new licensing requirements.

I started reporting on the attacks on my favorite journalists like Mr. Gan and Ms. Ressa feeling pessimistic. But it’s impossible not to be moved by their perhaps insane optimism and by how much they love their work. “The fact that there is nothing else out there gives us an immense sense of purpose — it makes you feel like you’re really doing something essential despite all the odds,” Ms. Attalah said.

Mr. Gan told me he “would not have lasted 20 years if I was not an incorrigible optimist,” adding that the current crackdown in Malaysia could be the worst yet. (In fact, he asked me not to describe the make and color of his car because it could be a target for attacks.) Ms. Ressa’s motto is, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

And Luz Mely Reyes, who co-founded a Venezuelan site whose name translates as “Firefly Effect,” said she has noticed one bright spot in the crisis: Even government officials have been forced to rely on her site’s and others’ reports on the coronavirus because they know the official numbers can’t be trusted.

“They know that people need information, and they know that people don’t believe them,” she said.