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“The only security of all is in a free press.”
Thomas Jefferson’s words on the centrality of a vigorous exchange of ideas ring as true today and they did in his day. A free, engaged, argumentative fourth estate is the blood in the veins of a democracy. Without this pillar, the house of democracy cannot stand.
For evidence, look no further than Turkey.
Turkey was once the principle example of functional, democratic governance in the Middle East. Today, its government has a rotten core, having used a constitutional referendum to effectively neuter the parliament and grant even more power to the executive.
The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was able to turn a mechanism of democracy against itself, using a plebiscite to undermine the ability of the Turkish people to exercise influence over their own government.
The referendum took place in April of this year, with nearly 50 million Turks going to the polls. Although on the face of it, the vote seemed democratic, it was merely a facade.
Government intimidation like arrests of anti-referendum campaigners and suspicious power outages at opposition rallies played a role, but suppression of the media was the cornerstone of the government’s victory.
In Erdogan’s Turkey, journalists are arrested and harassed on a routine basis for publishing views critical of the government.
According to the Stockholm Center for Freedom, more than half of the world’s imprisoned journalists are being held in Turkey. Ayse Yildrim, a Turkish columnist, faced criminal charges and had her passport confiscated for reporting on the accidental death of a Kurdish baby at a protest.
Leading up to the referendum, the Economist reported that around 90 percent of national television air time was devoted to the pro-referendum campaign as a result of government crackdown on press freedom of its opponents.
Here in the United States, Donald Trump has spent much of his time also excoriating and de-legitimizing the press. His attacks on the press have ranged from infantile social media posts (tweeting a video of himself tackling a man with the CNN logo on his face) to constant assertions of the unfairness of “fake news,” echoing the grisly past of the term, Lügenpresse, or lying press.
Even in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, he couldn’t stop himself from taking a dig at reporters while meeting with members of the Coast Guard, insinuating that journalists weren’t brave enough to face the winds of the storm, despite multiple reports of reporters saving people from floodwaters while the president sat around complaining about James Comey on Twitter.
Each of these in isolation might not seem to be that big a problem. In the moment, when Donald Trump calls the press the enemy of the American people, it is easy to brush off as Trump being Trump, but we should not be so complacent about this behavior.
Turkey used to be a democratic country. Turkey was once the democratic beacon of the region, with aspirations of joining the European Union. In a matter of years, Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned it into a gangster state, run by his cronies and thugs.
Americans should not be frogs slowly boiled in water, becoming ever more accustomed to a sitting American president intentionally undermining one of the most important building blocks of our democracy.
Preceding the corruption or collapse of almost every democracy is the muzzling of the free press. It is the responsibility of every American citizen to protect the integrity of the press. Without it, there is no democracy.
Don’t fool yourself; it can happen here.
First posted as an opinion column in the Greenfield Daily Reporter. The original post can be found here.