(Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump emboldened other leaders to quash press freedom, his message amplified by tech platforms and a mainstream media which did not know how to respond, three leading journalists and campaigners said.
CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Maria Ressa, who heads a Philippine news website known for its scrutiny of President Rodrigo Duterte, and Sonny Swe, CEO of Frontier Myanmar, told a Reuters Next panel that press freedom had deteriorated sharply.
Ressa, who has faced criminal prosecutions for her reporting, likened the arrival of the major tech platforms to an atom bomb going off in the media ecosystem, with readers manipulated by algorithms towards ever more incendiary news.
Amanpour, the chief international anchor on CNN, said broadcasters and newspapers also had to look at the role they had played after they reported comments and news based on who had said them, regardless of whether they were true.
“We should have dropped the mic a long time ago,” she told the panel on press freedom around the world, adding that citizens also have to start taking much more responsibility for what they consume.
Rights groups have warned that press freedom is in peril in many parts of the world, with journalists harassed by police, the judiciary, politicians and protesters on the streets.
In 2020, the United Nations accused Trump’s White House of mounting an “onslaught” against the media which, it said, had led to a very negative “Trump effect” on press freedom elsewhere.
Reacting to the report, the White House said at the time that it expected all news to be “fair and accurate”, adding that Trump was “not going to back down from calling out lies”.
Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook had previously taken a light touch to policing posts from world leaders, arguing that people have a right to see their statements and it is in the public interest.
But the storming of the U.S. Capitol last week has prompted a rethink, with Twitter banning Trump’s account, which had 88 million followers, due to the risk of further violence.
The speakers said tech platforms needed to be regulated at a key moment in their development, although there is no easy consensus on who should lead this.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has criticized Twitter’s ban on Trump and warned through a spokesman that legislators, not private companies, should decide on potential curbs to free expression.
In Myanmar, Swe said, the government used Facebook to release news, particularly during the pandemic, which prevented journalists from scrutinising data.
Asked if they were more optimistic about press freedom in 2021, Amanpour said she was, while Ressa said it depended on how the industry handles this moment. Swe, jailed for eight years for breaching censorship rules, said he remained hopeful.
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Reporting by Leela de Kretser; Writing by Kate Holton; Editing by Alexander Smith