David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, called it a war of values – the increasingly repressive attitude of some governments around the world towards a free press. At a moment in the United States when truth and facts have become points of contention, up for debate, Remnick sat down with four fearless journalists at the Women in the World New York Summit on Wednesday evening to discuss ways in which objectivity can be eroded on the way to authoritarianism.
With their firsthand experience, these journalists – from Turkey, Russia, India, and America – are guides, Remnick said, to the “warning posts” of repression that need to be watched out for in America today.
Turkey was once relatively liberal towards its media. However, as of December 2016, at least 81 journalists were imprisoned by the government, and the real number may be much higher. Ece Temelkuran, a Turkish reporter who was fired from her job in 2012 after writing articles that were critical of President Erdoğan, is not surprised by this seemingly dramatic shift. Indeed, Temelkuran suggests that Erdoğan was always viewed more skeptically by some Turkish journalists than he was by the international press. But the most concerning thing about the imprisonments, she says, is how they are becoming normalized in Turkey, and thus legitimized: “It is almost like [an] empire of fear.”
Masha Gessen, a respected Russian-American journalist and the author of 10 books, including The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, says that Putin began attacking the media on his very first day in office. Now, more than 16 years later, he wields near-total control of broadcast television in Russia. An entire generation of young Russians have grown up consuming nothing except “Putin TV.” This “cacophony of propaganda,” Gessen says, shows the world as Putin wants to see it, reflected back to him – and to his fellow Russians – as the truth.
Masha Gessen recalls once being fired from a Russian magazine for refusing to censor a ridiculous incident involving Putin and some migratory birds. When she tweeted about being fired, Putin called her directly. They met in person, and Putin told her he liked kittens and puppies and little animals: “That was a line that was intended to convince me that he was serious about nature conservation,” Gessen recalls. Truth and farce had become hopelessly entwined.
Barkha Dutt, a television commentator in India, talks about the tools of intimidation used against journalists by her own government, as well as regular citizens over social media: “I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called a whore on Twitter just because I won’t reconcile my opinion to somebody else’s.” Nationalism, the dominate narrative in India, has become a blunt instrument wielded to stifle nuance and debate.
Dutt sees a similarity between Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, and President Trump, in that they both share a dislike for “liberal media.” In the United States, the media is still pushing back against Trump’s attacks. But in India, Dutt says, populism has swamped everything.
Maggie Haberman, a political correspondent for the New York Times, finds herself grappling every day with a president who is openly obsessed with his own narrative in the media – “the fuel that generates him.” Trump’s intense involvement with the press, by turns cozy and combative, is unprecedented for a modern American president. It is also a mercurial dynamic that poses serious challenges for a political reporter – as Haberman experienced just that morning in the Oval Office.
In retrospect, Haberman sees many missteps made by the American media corps during the 2016 presidential campaign. But she can also see a turning point for Trump just after the New Hampshire primaries, when he suddenly become emboldened and began making more authoritative statements. What set him off?
Additional reporting by Karen Compton.