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More respect for differing opinions

Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl
May 3, 2017

Journalists are under increasing pressure in democratic countries like the US and Poland, partly because of narrowing public discourse. The media itself bears some responsibility for this development, says Ines Pohl.

A protestor holds a placard and a press card with his mouth covered in tape before trial of Can Dundar
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Suna

The numbers are sobering. Worldwide, more and more journalists are facing pressure, being obstructed in their work, or worst of all, threatened, imprisoned or even killed. Despite international efforts, governments in countries such as Egypt or Burundi continue to clamp down on reporters.

In Turkey, conditions for journalists took a dramatic turn for the worse during the unprecedented government crackdown that followed last summer's failed coup attempt. More than 150 journalists are in prison in Turkey, among them the German-Turkish reporter Deniz Yucel. In conflict-ridden countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen, journalists continue to be subjected to threats from all sides. It's exactly in those places that the work of international press organizations is most important - among other things, they offer independent information in a restricted media environment.

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Ines Pohl is DW's editor-in-chief

Anti-media rhetoric

But there is another development at play that should alarm us all. According to the latest report by the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, press freedom is increasingly coming under massive threat in more established democracies.

In countries such as the United States and Poland, anti-media rhetoric is on the rise, paving the way for restrictive laws that extend the surveillance powers of intelligence agencies or threaten whistleblowers.

In this regard, US President Donald Trump is leading the pack. During his election campaign, he managed to discredit the serious reporting of established media organizations within just a few months. Thanks to Twitter, his unfiltered, unchecked assertions reach millions of people, day and night. Often, he simply spreads lies, and accuses credible news organizations of reporting fake news - especially when they are critical of him or his policies.

His strategy is going over well, and not just among his supporters. Even major critics of the new president would agree that the mainstream press has not been free for a long time - that it's either steered by corporate money and interest, or at the very least reflective of elites, and not the daily experiences of average people.

Loss of credibility

Symbolbild digitaler Populismus
Trump can bypass the mainstream media through TwitterImage: picture alliance/dpa/P. Pleul

This phenomenon is by no means limited to the US. In countries such as France, the Netherlands and even Germany, public opinion of professional journalism is lower now than it has been in a very long time. And thanks to the new possibilities provided by the internet, perhaps the greatest threat to press freedom is the loss of credibility.

When the public no longer trusts professionally trained journalists who feel bound to follow ethical guidelines, it's very easy for people with specific interests to hijack the public discourse on social media, whether by planting fake information, fueling conspiracy theories, or cyberbullying. The mainstream media are then sidelined, because they increasingly lose relevance in public discourse.

Danger for democracy

This is extremely dangerous for democracies, and it's not so easy to put the genie back in the bottle. We media professionals partly share responsibility for this development. By presuming that we alone are in the possession of the truth, we've made it easy for people like Donald Trump to thrive.

Established, mainstream media organizations can only win back esteem if they manage to truly listen to people. In particular, those people who think differently, who have doubts and worries, who feel ignored and who otherwise turn to the populists with their easy answers. Journalists should classify - but not morally define - what is good and what is evil. In Germany at least, we have a legal system that clearly regulates what you are and are not allowed to say.

Ines Pohl is DW editor-in-chief. Do you have something to add? Join the discussion below. 

Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl Bureau head of DW's Washington Studio@inespohl