Opinion | Civil Rights

A free press helps create a shared culture — authoritarians don't like that

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

When a free press does its job correctly, journalists keep a community and a nation informed about the news of the day, including about political, social and cultural events. In performing this task, a vibrant media helps create and deepen a shared culture.  

That is precisely why authoritarians loathe independent journalism. Autocrats and tyrants want to define the country and the community. They don't want institutions such as a free press helping forge a national or local identity.

As a result, swift, troubling steps are being taken to suppress journalists in places where anti-democratic forces are taking root: Afghanistan, Myanmar (Burma), El Salvador. Crackdowns on press freedoms continue to grow in those nations and elsewhere, presenting the Biden administration a challenge - as well as an opportunity. Advocating for freedom of the press, and explaining why that liberty matters, could become a pillar for its geopolitical strategies and elevate the cause of human freedom.

First, though, such advocacy will require a willingness to confront difficult situations where journalists are being abused. Consider Afghanistan. Long before the Taliban marched into Kabul, its forces were cracking down on Afghan media. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that 13 journalists were killed there in 2018. The number of deaths have declined, but, unfortunately, a Reuters reporter and a local television anchor were killed in Afghanistan this summer. 

Similarly, Taliban forces have used their power to squash independent reporting. CPJ reports that the Taliban detained and released at least 14 journalists in early September. Nine of them were subjected to violence during their detainment. What's more, Reporters Sans Frontières reports that fewer than 100 of 700 female journalists are still working in Kabul, while some have been attacked and harassed.

Look next at Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The New York Times reported last month that Burmese authorities ordered American journalist Danny Fenster to remain in detention until further notice. Burmese authorities arrested Fenster, managing editor of Frontier Myanmar, in May on unnamed charges. He is being held on the fuzzy accusation of spreading information that could undermine the military, a.k.a., the government. The Michigan native could face three years in prison.

Fenster is not the only journalist Burmese authorities have rounded up, abused or deported. Since seizing power in February, the Times reports, the military junta has detained over 100 journalists and 47 remain in custody. Some, including American journalist Nathan Maung, have claimed they were burned and beaten. Except for Fenster, all foreign detainees have been deported. The result is a nation where military strongmen determine what people can know and not know about Burma.

The threats to media organizations need not be violent or brutal to establish who is in control. Last year, El Salvador's president announced a criminal investigation into El Faro after the news outlet's investigative report alleged he had negotiated a truce with MS-13, providing gang members benefits in exchange for a lower homicide and support for his party.

The Knight Center's publication LatAm Journalism Review details how Salvadoran authorities continue to chip away at independent journalism. In June, a Salvadoran court ordered the publication Revista Factum to take down a piece on its site about an investigation into a mass grave. In July, an American digital journalist working for El Faro became the latest foreign member of the press to have been denied a Salvadoran work permit. In September, the Association of Journalists of El Salvador protested that Salvadoran authorities have yet to apologize for police officers attacking journalists in August in a local marketplace.

Moves like those get the point across: The authorities will determine what citizens know about their country and what they don't know. 

For that reason, the Biden administration should make freedom of expression a pillar of its foreign policy strategy. Controlling information is how autocrats amass and abuse their power. Without an institution like a free media, they define and control the nation, the community and the culture. 

Yes, in his recent United Nations address, President Biden listed journalists among those whose lives exemplify the democratic world. The White House has called for Fenster's release, and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken emphasized in a recent Times interview how the U.S. evacuated at least 700 media affiliates, including Afghan nationals, from Afghanistan. 

But this issue warrants a continual vigilance - and the threat is to more than journalism and journalists. The fight for an independent media is a struggle for the larger freedom of human beings. Free people have the knowledge to make informed decisions about the future of their countries and communities.

Authoritarians may not want that, but we in democracies should want the people to be in control.

William McKenzie is senior editorial advisor at the George W. Bush Institute.