“If censorship reigns, there cannot be sincere flattery, and none but little men are afraid of little writings,” Pierre Beaumarchais wrote in The Marriage of Figaro. In this presentation, Reporters Without Borders denounces the “little presidents” who publicly attack journalists and media outlets instead of responding to their criticism.
Reporting is a dangerous job in some countries and journalists who ask irritating questions or shine a light on government corruption often find themselves the targets of presidential anger.
Some presidents tolerate no disagreement, not even the least debate. Others routinely identify any expression of doubt as an act of opposition, sedition or conspiracy, or as foreign interference. Others, the repeat offenders, wage campaigns of harassment against the media outlets or journalists they dislike.
And finally, there are those who say nothing because they already have such an effective system of censorship that there is never any need to issue reminders to already compliant media. From veiled allusions to open death threats, the style varies from country to country but the goal remains the same – to gag information.
“A threshold is crossed when a head of state lets loose a stream of verbal abuse against media personnel who are just doing their work,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “How can journalists function normally if the state that is supposed to guarantee their safety is headed by a person who holds them up to contempt, bullies them and threatens them, opening the way to abuses against the media that go unpunished.”
The examples chosen reflect the characteristics of the relationship between the state and journalists in each region. Individually, some of these comments may seem relatively harmless, but collectively they highlight the shocking climate of tension to which journalists are exposed in certain countries.
Many Latin American presidents do not hesitate to berate the news media and vilify journalism in their public addresses. Their attacks are frontal and accusatory. Some incite hatred and even violence. This is very worrying. Such insults coming from the highest level of the state can only further undermine freedom of information, which is already under attack in Latin America. And they are liable to be interpreted as a blank cheque for abuses against journalists.
Some presidents choose to attack journalists to avoid debating ideas. In very polarized countries where the media are often used for political ends, accusing journalists of being biased or plotting against the government is easier than responding to criticism. Instead of eliciting a response, instead of prompting a debate, independent journalism just meets with slander and insults. Any criticism of government policy is liable to be branded as an attack on the country.
According to the Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), presidents are supposed to guarantee the safety of their fellow citizens. Instead, verbal abuse of the media by presidents such as Maduro, Correa and Hernández foster a dangerous climate of censorship, self-censorship and impunity for violence against journalists.
When Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro gives news conferences (at which questions from journalists are never welcome), he rarely misses an opportunity to accuse foreign news media such as CNN en Español and the Miami Herald of waging an “international campaign” against Venezuela. When inaugurating homes paid for by the government in September 2014, he referred to a plan to “poison and dump their poison on Venezuela and elsewhere in the world,” using virulent language to accuse the media of being biased and pursuing a hidden agenda.
Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa uses the same methods in his weekly TV broadcasts known as “Enlaces Ciudadanos” (Citizen Liaisons). In Enlace Ciudadano No. 424 on 16 May 2015, he attacked the editor of the Crudo Ecuador website, threatening to “respond with the same weapons.” And, in reaction to TV presenter Alfonso Espinosa’s comments on plans to eliminate term limits for elected politicians, he accused journalists of using “the opposition’s dishonest discourse to demonize what is perfectly legitimate, democratic and transparent.”
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández paid tribute to journalists in his own special way on 25 May 2015, celebrated as Day of the Journalist in Honduras. Reacting to allegations of ruling National Party involvement in embezzling social security funds, he lashed out as “pseudo-journalists (who) dissemble, distort and invent.”
EASTERN EUROPE AND CENTRAL ASIA
Insulting journalists is an integral part of President Erdogan’s methods, which are characterized by populism, conspiracy theories and intolerance. In response to criticism, he usually tries to smear his critics. If they are lucky, he just calls them “ignorant.” But he is more likely to brand them as “agents of subversion,” “foreign spies” or even some kind of “terrorist.” These verbal attacks are symptomatic of the authoritarian tendencies of a leader whose vision of the world is becoming more and more polarized and paranoid. The loss of his parliamentary majority should force him to seek consensus. Will it also put a stop to his insults?
The all-powerful Chechen president’s crude language and inappropriate comments help to sustain the climate of arbitrary rule and fear that dominates his long-suffering republic. Mixing his private and public lives, Ramzan Kadyrov posts praise and blistering attacks on Instagram along with photos of his family, friends and associates. His nefarious reputation, the summary methods employed by his militiamen, and the tragic fate suffered by many of his opponents lend a great deal of weight to his words.
But verbal excesses are just one element in an extensive arsenal of intimidatory methods. While allowing government propaganda to create an increasingly hostile environment, Russian President Vladimir Putin usually refrains from direct attacks on critical journalists, pretending to be unaware of them. Central Asia’s eternal despots, ever mindful to maintain a presidential stature often bordering on deification, are usually restrained in their public statements. And anyway, the Turkmen, Uzbek and Kazakh leaders have suppressed pluralism so effectively that virtually no critical journalists are left.
EUROPEAN UNION AND BALKANS
“When I look at you, I understand why you are always negative. Nothing positive can come from you, anyway (...) The fact that you raise these subjects is not surprising. You come from a newspaper of a certain kind and, obviously, from an ethnic background of that certain too. You do it on purpose.”
This was the response that President Milorad Dodik of the Republika Srpska, the Serbian part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, gave to a question from Gordana Katana of the independent daily Oslobodenje during a news conference on 14 March 2015. She had asked him about a relative of his who had been given a prison sentence and was on the run. Not content with these comments, Dodik subsequently ordered all government departments to cancel their Oslobodenje subscriptions.
Elected in 2010, the ultranationalist Dodik lords it over a country with widespread corruption and clientelism, and reacts with hostility to difficult questions from journalists, especially female ones. When a woman journalist with the TV programme 60 Minutes asked him a question, he replied: “You work for 60 Minutes? It’s a really lousy programme, it’s complete crap (...) I see that you at least are presentable. But you’re not pretty.” Such aggressiveness towards journalists is not unique in the Balkans, where it is used to deter media interest in matters involving the government and to divert attention by creating controversy.
The method is also used elsewhere in Europe including the European Union, where more and more leading politicians are being aggressive towards journalists. Last year, Hungary’s deputy prime minister described investigative journalists as “traitors” and said they were working for a “foreign power.” In France, the leaders of the far-right National Front often insult and intimidate journalists, treating them with a hostility that is increasingly seen across the entire French political spectrum.
Journalists in Africa are often treated as spies, terrorists or traitors, and are subjected to threats and physical attacks (that are rarely punished) and to judicial harassment designed to discourage them from investigating potentially embarrassing stories. Protected by a compliant judicial system and by security services that keep the pressure on journalists who don’t toe the line, Africa’s presidents constantly proclaim their undying attachment to media freedom and democracy. But from time to time, the varnish cracks.
This is how Gambia’s President Yayah Jammeh spoke of journalists in 2011: “The journalists are less than 1 percent of the population, and if anybody expects me to allow less than 1 percent of the population to destroy 99 percent of the population, you are in the wrong place.” And he added: “I don't have an opposition. What we have are people that hate the country, and I will not work with them.”
Investigative journalism is too often accused of being a form of opposition politics. Obviously there are politicized news media in Africa, but journalists who do nothing more than call on the authorities to account for their actions or draw attention to the population’s problems find themselves accused of “hating their country and government.”
Guinea may be less dangerous than Gambia, but journalists (and those who defend them) are treated no less dismissively there by President Alpha Condé. Journalists, he said in November 2014, “can do anything they like (...) They can write what they want. It is of no importance. I don’t read newspapers, I don’t go online and I don’t listen to radio stations.” And he added: “I don’t give a damn what Reporters Without Borders writes (...) they don’t rule Guinea. I’m not scared of international law or human rights (...) Everyone will respect the law in Guinea.”
But if Guinea’s authorities are indifferent to what journalists say, why did the High Authority for Communication ban live discussion programmes and restrict press reviews in the national media in the run-up to this year’s presidential election?
Displaying complete contempt for journalists and their “idiotic” questions is also Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s way of dealing with the media. During an African Union summit in Cairo in 2010, Mugabe’s bodyguards manhandled a British journalist who dared to ask on what basis he considered himself president. “Are your security guards going to hit me in front of the cameras?” the journalist asked. The enraged Mugabe replied: “Stop asking stupid questions. You are an idiot.”
Mugabe brushed aside a journalist’s questions in a similar fashion in April 2014, saying: “I don't want to see a white face.” And he dislikes not only seeing troublesome journalists but also being seen by them. His security detail forced several journalists to delete the photos they had taken of him falling as he left Harare airport in February 2015. When you’re trying to portray a 91-year-old president as still indestructible, the public eye can be a big nuisance.
Thailand’s prime minister, Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha was asked at a news conference on 25 March 2015 what the government would do to journalists who do not stick to the official line. “We'll probably just execute them,” he replied tersely.
Since imposing martial law in May 2014, Gen. Prayut has cracked down hard on those who defy his policies and defend the fundamental right to criticize. He has gagged reporters, bloggers and news outlets regarded as overly critical of himself or his military government. The growing hostility towards the media being voiced publicly by Prayut has drawn the entire world’s attention to his contempt for freedom of information and its defenders, regarded as a threat to the nation.
Prayut clearly does not think it is the job of journalists to question the government. On the contrary, speaking on 5 March, celebrated as “Reporters Day” in Thailand, he said journalists should “play a major role in supporting the government's affairs, practically creating the understanding of government's policies to the public, and reduce the conflicts in the society.”
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s policy with journalists is to brand them as malevolent enemies and to dismiss revelations about communist party corruption as “despicable stratagems by hostile forces.” When Dung threatens outspoken bloggers with “severe punishments,” the deterrent effect is guaranteed because no fewer than 27 citizen-journalists and bloggers are currently detained in Vietnam. In 2012 alone, the Vietnamese authorities prosecuted no fewer than 48 bloggers and human rights defenders, sentencing them to a total of 166 years in prison and 63 years of probation.
Chinese presidents rarely refer to media freedom. It took a joint news conference with US President Barack Obama in November 2014 for Xi Jinping to take a public position on the issue. The difficult question obviously did not come from a Chinese reporter. Alluding to censorship of the New York Times after it revealed the wealth of then Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s family in 2012, a New York Times reporter asked if Beijing was going to lift its restrictions on foreign journalists working in China. Xi replied: “In Chinese, we have a saying: ‘The party which has created the problem should be the one to help resolve it.’ So perhaps we should look into the problem to see where the cause lies.”
The Chinese president’s attempt to shift the blame on to the foreign media did not unfortunately receive the international condemnation it deserved. According to a survey by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, nearly one China-based foreign correspondent in 10 has been threatened with the non-renewal of their visa because of what they have written. The New York Times has not been able to appoint new China correspondents because the government systematically refuses to give them visas.
When Burma’s President Thein Sein issued a warning to the media during a radio address in July 2014, his words were not taken lightly. “If media freedom threatens national security instead of helping the nation, I want to warn all that we will take effective action under existing laws,” the president said. Seven journalists have been jailed in Burma since the start of 2014. Usurping the press council’s role, the authorities have taken it upon themselves to act as the guarantors of journalistic ethics and to severely punish media outlets deemed guility of professional misconduct.
Like the accusation of endangering national security or state interests, the charge of “sedition” is one of the ways government leaders use to gag the media. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak often uses the newly-reinforced Sedition Act to order prosecutions of journalists, bloggers and other critics including the cartoonist Zunar. And Najib does not hesitate to directly and publicly threaten media outlets with legal action. He says he is ready to listen to “constructive criticism” from journalists, but when they cover abusive government practices, he orders police raids designed to censor and deter media from continuing to cover Malaysian politics freely.
MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA
Instead of direct verbal attacks on journalists, Middle Eastern leaders usually resort to illegal arrests, arbitrary prison sentences, torture and enforced disappearances when expressing their contempt for the media.
Middle Eastern journalists are often convicted on such charges as “disseminating false information endangering state security,” “supporting or condoning terrorism” or “disturbing public order.” Many have been treated as spies, liars or idiots, but few presidents have publicly voiced such accusations.
Most of the region’s leaders give few interviews and carefully vet the media that are granted access. This is the case with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been very inaccessible since the start of the crisis in Syria although it is the world’s deadliest country for journalists. It is also the case with Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has rarely been exposed to the media since his health deteriorated.
Ali Khamenei has never given an interview or news conference since taking over as the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Supreme Leader in 1989. In 2000, he described the pro-reform press that had emerged since President Mohammad Khatami’s election in 1997 as “a base of operations by foreign enemies inside our country.” The comment was accompanied by an order to carry out raids on journalists and media outlets.
Since then, at least 300 media outlets have been closed as “foreign enemies within the country,” thousands of news websites have been censored and more than 500 journalists, bloggers and other online information activists have been arbitrarily arrested, tortured and given long jail terms, while many others have had to flee abroad. New media and satellite TV stations broadcasting to Iran from outside the country are the latest targets. Iran is now one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists, like Egypt, where journalists who do not toe the government line are accused by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of being “terrorists.” Not that a great deal is said on the subject. Sisi’s regime prefers imprisonment to insults.
As for the Gulf monarchies, they rarely address the national media and do not insult journalists publicly because they are concerned about their international image. Independent and critical media are nonetheless rarely tolerated in these countries, where censorship and self-censorship prevail. The only space that may still be found for freedom of expression and information is online.