‘Enemies of the People’: Anti-Media Rhetoric and the Transatlantic Relationship

Illustration /  Eddie Stok  for AWE

Illustration / Eddie Stok for AWE



This article was produced in collaboration with the
Bertelsmann Foundation North America


“Are you CNN?” A young man carrying the so-called flag of Kekistan—an alt-right banner—and wearing a MAGA hat asks our filmmaker at a crowded political rally in Milan, Italy. “CNN is fake news—Remember that!”


He strode off with half a dozen others towards the stage, where final preparations were underway for an upcoming speech. This speech would not end with a chorus of “America First, America First,” but rather “Prima gli Italiani, Prima gli Italiani,” or “Italians First.” Our camera crew was in Italy to cover the election. It was late February 2018, and the rally’s main speaker, Matteo Salvini, was just a week away from leading his Lega party to a surging third place finish and an eventual coalition government with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

From the Twitter feed of U.S. President Donald Trump to the right-wing of Italy, one of the hallmarks of recent populist campaigns is an aggressive stance against journalists and the so-called mainstream media.

While tensions between the U.S. and the E.U. are running high, the transatlantic relationship is flourishing, in at least one sense. Populists on both sides of the Atlantic have struck a common chord with combative rhetoric against journalists and media outlets they see as critical of their platforms and policies. The rise of populism is a big reason why the democracy watchdog Freedom House concluded in 2017 that “press freedom globally has declined to its lowest levels in 13 years.”

Since then, conditions have not improved. Beyond financial, legal, and verbal challenges to media outlets and journalists on both sides of the Atlantic, reporters have been murdered in Slovakia, the United States, and Malta. Jan Kuciak, an investigative journalist following a corruption story, was murdered with his partner outside of Bratislava. In Annapolis, Maryland, five journalists were gunned down in the newsroom of a local paper. Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was also investigating corruption, was killed with a car bomb near her home in Malta. While there is no evidence that these murders were the result of any populist group, they are part of an alarming trend.


Free News?


Much of the vulnerability the press faces today is due to the internet, which has disrupted the profession of journalism by offering fast information supported in many cases by advertising revenues. In the U.S. and the EU, more people are spending more time online, which has and will continue to change how people get their information.


It can be hard to imagine that internet access, even in developed countries, is still not 100 percent, even if it is getting close. Home internet access amongst adults in the E.U. has risen from 55 percent in 2007 to a bloc-wide 87 percent in 2017. Over the same time frame in the U.S., it rose from 74 percent to 89 percent. Smartphone ownership more than doubled in the last five years in the United States., climbing from 35 percent to 77 percent. Today, nearly one-quarter of American adults say they are online “almost constantly.” Of E.U. internet users, 87 percent said they used a smartphone to go online daily.

Populists on both sides of the Atlantic have struck a common chord with combative rhetoric against journalists

The gradual, near total reach of the internet has undermined the dominance of many news outlets by sapping readership and revenues for newspapers, even as it creates unprecedented opportunities for the spread of information. In one sense, the internet is boosting media freedom, since the number of sources and the ways to share them are growing. At the same time, however, the internet is contributing to the decline of press freedom, since it is having a negative impact of the ability of newsrooms to pay reporters. Declining revenue in the U.S. news industry, for example, has led the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to predict that employment as “reporter or correspondent” will drop 10 percent over the next decade, even as employment overall is expected to climb. And online advertising revenue is not expected to offset the lost profit due to declining newspaper subscriptions. As a result, newsrooms across the U.S. are downsizing.

With the business environment in flux, the press was already working from a tough position when populism swept into American and European politics.


Rhetoric, not ideology


Flagrantly anti-press attitudes have emerged in countries where populist movements have gained momentum. Of Freedom House’s worst E.U. performers, several had recently voted populist parties into government, including Italy at 22nd, Poland at 23rd, Greece at 27th, and Hungary at 28th out of 28.


The U.S. has also been flagged by Freedom House as a country with declining press freedom. President Donald Trump and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders frequently berate and deride journalists, with Trump calling them the “enemy of the people.”

On both sides of the Atlantic, a common aggressive, anti-press stance by populists has become the norm. And this has made it more difficult for reporters to do their jobs.

Julian Mueller-Kaler, who researches populism at the American Institute of Contemporary German Studies, describes this anti-media trend as part of populism’s central mechanism--designating an enemy. “Populism is mainly a rhetorical strategy,” he says, not an ideology. It is a way of arguing that the establishment and the institutions and politicians that maintain it are not able to solve the problems facing a country. The strength of populism is its ability to mobilize frustrations by professing to bring power more directly to the people.

Mueller-Kaler argues there is also another level to populism’s attacks on the press, an attempt to eventually undermine trust in experts and facts, and to place its roots in the resulting confusion over reality itself.

“When politicians constantly lie, people don’t start believing the lies. What they do is they start to question the concept of truth,” he says. This is a longer process and requires a back and forth between the press and the populists. Eventually, Mueller-Kaler says, “people don’t know what to believe.”

If it seems like populists relish a fight with the press, this could be the reason. When President Trump calls the Singapore Summit meeting with Kim Jong-un a huge success or claims that the U.S. economy has never been better, a war of facts and figures ensues. The Trump administration can use this disaccord to fight the media for days, dragging them into an argument of interpretation, or leaning on “alternative facts.” If neither the administration nor the press back down, then the public is left either uncertain about what the truth of the matter is, or wondering if the truth is even important at all.

However, attacking the press can be a risky strategy. While the main populist figures attacking the press in Poland, Hungary, Italy, and the U.S. have yet to suffer a real backlash, in Slovakia, a more complicated back-and-forth has played out over the course of 2018.


Dirty, anti-Slovak Prostitutes


In 2016, the former Prime Minister of Slovakia, Robert Fico, said to journalists at a 2016 press conference on corruption allegations, “Some of you are dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes […] you don’t inform, you fight the government.” This was no isolated incident--Fico has brazenly insulted the press over and over. But just over two years later, he would be forced from government over the unsolved murder of an investigative journalist.


Fico’s social-democratic party, Smer-SD, has been either led or been part of the coalition in power for 10 of the past 12 years.

Over the past decade, the party has increasingly employed populist tactics to maintain support. After the financial crisis in 2008, for example, members of Smer-SD spoke eagerly about freezing payments for members of parliament, a proposal considered a populist, rather than  serious, move.

And in the campaign before the 2016 parliamentary election, with anti-immigrant rhetoric a frequent tool used by politicians across Slovakia and Europe, Smer-SD capitalized by becoming the anti-immigrant party. Facing frustration amongst Slovakians concerning migration and gains by the far-right populist party Kotleba, Smer-SD adopted slogans such as “We will protect Slovakia” and “No redistribution of immigrants.” This strategy worked. According to a January 2016 poll by Polis ahead of the election, these were the most recognized slogans in the campaign. This despite the fact that Slovakia is relatively unaffected by migration from the Middle East and North Africa because it has not been a preferred destination country for migrants to the EU. Smer-SD made immigration a central issue in the campaign and became quickly identified as the party to stop it.

With Smer-SD and Fico ascendant through the 2016 election, many Slovakian journalists felt as though they were being pushed into a corner. Then, the February 2018 murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova turned the whole situation on its head. Kuciak had been investigating the alleged misappropriation of E.U. funds, a scandal involving Fico's closest colleagues. Following the murder of Kuciak, Fico and his Smer-SD interior minister made a now infamous TV appearance holding wads of banknotes and offering one million Euros to anyone with information on the murder.

When politicians constantly lie, people don’t start believing the lies. What they do is they start to question the concept of truth

But once Kuciak’s unfinished article was published, revealing the corruption allegations against Fico’s government, the opposition in the parliament began piling pressure on the prime minister and his cabinet to resign. Major protests were organized across Slovakia on March 9, and Fico resigned on March 15. After all was said and done, Smer-SD dropped in the polls to an approval rating of around 20 percent, their lowest since 2003. Fico remained head of Smer-SD but is out of the government, and his party would be in real jeopardy if any of the allegations from the corruption investigation are confirmed.

The question for Slovakia now, is whether the press is still a target of opportunity for populists. After such a shocking series of events, public tolerance for attacks on the press is lower, but the press in Slovakia has not emerged from the fall of Fico better off than they were before.

A focal point for the plight of the press in Slovakia has been the country’s main public broadcaster, Rozhlas a televízia Slovenska (RTVS). Just as President Trump mulled cutting the funding for public radio and television broadcasters in the U.S., Smer-SD has sought to undermine RTVS. With a 2017 poll showing that RTVS was the country’s most trusted news source, political pressure on the broadcaster would have a major effect on the press in Slovakia.

The management of RTVS is meant to be neutral, a condition that can be tricky since the organization’s head is selected by a vote in the parliament. In August 2017, Jaroslav Rezník was selected as the broadcaster’s CEO, and quickly moved to cancel Slovakia’s only  investigative TV-show, “Reporters.” The cancelation coupled with increasing partisan political pressure on the editors at RTVS led part of the senior editorial team to release an open letter to RTVS leadership expressing their concern about editorial independence. With no adequate response from the broadcaster’s higher-ups, and fearing that RTVS would revert from being the country’s most trusted news source to a mouthpiece for the government, journalists began to depart in protest. Yet many of them, who have swung from fear in the wake of Kuciak’s murder, to hope that protests would exert an impact, say that little has changed.


‘We Thank God for Facebook’


If populists continue to push anti-press attitudes in the U.S. and the E.U., it will be because they continue to decide that the press is part of the establishment and a target of opportunity. On both counts, social media plays a vital role in serving as an alternative way to spread information and a way for populists to communicate directly with their supporters. Today’s internet-savvy populists use platforms like Facebook and Twitter to speak directly to their base, circumventing the press, whether or not they view them as an adversary. “We thank God for the net. We thank God for social media. We thank God for Facebook,” said Matteo Salvini in his victory speech on March 5, 2018.


In a time when populism and social media have found a strong alliance, press freedom’s downward trend will be difficult to reverse. To do so, the press in the U.S. and the E.U. may need to find an ally of its own.



The Ocean Between Us

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