So what is it actually like to be a reporter in a place where an authoritarian ruler seeks to destroy the media, and rallies his supporters against it?
That remains a fairly remote scenario in the United States, with its strong courts and tradition of journalistic independence. But it’s closer than it has been in a while — perhaps since the oddly forgotten period in which Richard Nixon sicced the CIA on the scoopmonger Jack Anderson in the early 1970s. (Read Mark Feldstein’s book on this if you want to be shocked.) It’s close enough that the Committee to Protect Journalists warned on Thursday that “a Trump presidency would represent a threat to press freedom in the United States.”
Nobody is watching Trump’s war on the media — from chants denouncing CNN to legal letters to the Times — with more interest than the brave reporters already working under tough conditions in authoritarian countries. We asked several of them — from Venezuela to the Philippines to the former Soviet Union — about what it's like to cover leaders who openly threaten to throw enemies in jail. And the answers we got were, well, pretty alarming.
“Get ready for anything,” the Azeri journalist Khadija Ismayilova told us in a recent interview. “Things you don’t imagine — sex tapes. Being kidnapped in the streets and getting beaten.”
Ismayilova spent much of the last two years in jail for her exposés of President Ilham Aliyev and his family. The press is almost an automatic target under autocratic rulers, she said, because the traditions of neutral, fair journalism — the idea that you can avoid taking a side — are no shield.
“The first thing autocrats target is free press,” she said. “You’re going to be a target and you will probably have to be a side of the story ... just because you are telling the truth, just because you are doing your job.”
Reporters have another role, too, she said, recalling the story of a colleague who was kidnapped, beaten, and then released and ordered to write about his experience.
The press, that is to say, becomes "a tool for intimidation of the population,” she said.
Ismayilova’s warning seemed so alarming, alarmist even, that we were not sure whether or not to write it up when she was first interviewed in September.
But as with so many things Donald Trump, however, you just have to wait a few days for your peg. On Monday in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Trump offered this salvo on what he’ll do with the media if elected: "We have to take it away from these dishonest characters.” It was a line fully in keeping with the only truly memorable moment of Sunday night’s debate: his growled threat to jail his political opponent — a fairly common practice outside stable democracies.
Trump has lived and died through the media — through his rise, his humiliating fall, and his revival as a television star. He obsesses about television hosts and magazine writers, and his recent collapse came through an Access Hollywood outtake. He once dreamed of building something called Television City on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and Vanity Fair reported that he may start a TV network if he loses.
And if he wins? Well, journalists who have covered the rise of similar figures abroad assume he will target the media. The best-known modern case, of course, is Russia in the early 2000s, where Putin moved heavily against privately owned television networks, and where critical journalists like Paul Klebnikov — and, later, Anna Politkovskaya — wound up dead. But in a contemporary world shaped by media, the trend is global.
“I think Donald Trump looks like Chavez,” said Xabier Coscojuela, the editor-in-chief of the Venezuelan newspaper Tal Cual. “Hugo Chavez a few days [after] taking power began his confrontation with the media. At first he attacked the media owners and tried to rely on journalists, but as [he] found out journalists were losing sympathy, [he] made them target of attacks. He is requiring us to tell the truth, the clear truth.”
Like many of the reporters we spoke to, Coscojuela said he doubted Trump would be able to wield the kind of power over the media that Chavez or Putin took.
“I doubt that can be imposed on society and the American media as did Chavez in Venezuela. I think the US institutions are much stronger than the Venezuelan and [can] prevent Trump [from reaching the] levels that Chavez [did],” he said in an email.
“It cannot be the same in America because in America you have institutions — for Americans the idea of an independent media is very important,” said Tikhon Dzyadko, a Russian opposition journalist who now lives in the US and works for the independent RTVi. “For Russians, since the first term of Vladimir Putin, the government was successfully trying to explain for the citizens that you don’t need independent media.”
Of course, the reason authoritarians target the media is precisely to whittle away at the checks on other institutions. In Russia, a campaign against the media preceded the neutering of the country’s Parliament and business leadership.
And Dzyadko, too, said he anticipated that Trump would destabilize the relationship between the White House and the press.
“When I look at how he behaves toward the media — ban the Washington Post, unbend the Washington Post — he is unpredictable, and if he becomes president of the United States I think things like we experienced in Russia for the journalists are impossible, but you just don’t know what to expect from him — for example you cannot be sure that if he becomes president he will ban some news outlets from [the] White House. The main problem with him is that you cannot be ready for anything because he can do whatever he wants without any reason.”
And even as US media outlets have wrestled with the reality that to cover Trump fairly is, at times, to call him a liar, reporters abroad say that the concept of neutrality is the hardest to maintain under authoritarian regimes.
“More than ever, I am always thinking about a phrase that has become popular in Venezuela these days: In situations of injustice, if you choose to be in neutral, that means that you are choosing the side of the oppressor which has more power to hurt,” said Tamoa Calzadilla, a Venezuelan investigative reporter who was forced to resign after reporting on police brutality and now lives in Miami.
At the other end of the spectrum from Putin and Chavez is former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a media figure who used his properties to dominate the conversation, but under whom opposition media thrived.
“The anti-Berlusconi press has thrived in his years, not because he was magnanimous, but because Italy is a free country with the greatest freedom of speech,” said Christian Rocca, the editor of the Italian magazine IL, who added that Trump reminds him more of Beppe Grillo, the former comedian turned populist politician. “Berlusconi was a joyous liar. Grillo and Trump are leaders of the post-factual politics, which is very difficult to deal with. How do you cover someone who actually denies the thing he has just said? Do you have spare time to fact-check them? Can you really take them seriously? I really can't. But I'm scared.”
You never really know the strength of institutions until they’ve been tested, and some observers are more worried than others about what can be “undone” by what the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer recently described as a “demagogue feeding a vengeful populism.”
There is, however, one upside from contemplating an autocratic American government, Ismayilova said.
“There will be a lot of stories still — maybe it’s the cynical positive side of living in autocracy — but there is a lot of corruption all the time and there are a lot of stories to cover.”
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tomi Obaro is a senior culture editor for BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Tomi Obaro at email@example.com.
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