Mild verbal attacks on journalists can easily drift into something more sinister, imperiling a central pillar of democracy.

Politicians around the world have developed the habit of responding to critical media coverage by castigating the journalists responsible rather than simply rebutting them on the merits.

This occurs in democracies and authoritarian states alike, with radically different results depending on the strength of country’s institutions. What stops at mere words in one locale can easily lead to a journalist’s imprisonment, exile, or murder in another.

But the quotations below illustrate how the rhetoric itself exists on a single continuum, with no obvious barriers to prevent a given politician from sliding into the worst extremes. One might start by questioning journalists’ integrity and professionalism, then attack their motives and cast doubt on their patriotism. Before long they are foreign hirelings and spies, traitors and criminals. And it is the fate of traitors and criminals to end up dead or in prison.

The institutional safeguards of democracy may prevent lasting damage from these attacks in the countries lucky enough to have them, but such protections will not hold if elected leaders continue to batter them—and if citizens take them for granted.

 

“I’m not interested in journalists, I’m interested in the French people.… But journalists have a problem. They are too interested in themselves and not enough in the country.”
Emmanuel Macron, president of France, on his limited interactions with journalists in 2017

 

“Every citizen is paying them so they…

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