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Tyrants Do Better in Democracies

World Policy Journal begins each issue with the Big Question, where we ask a panel of experts to provide insight into the cover theme. The question for the spring 2017 Fascism Rising issue is: What role does the media play in driving xenophobia? Below, Kunda Dixit analyzes how tyrants take control of democratic regimes and journalists' role in fighting back against divisive rhetoric.

By Kunda Dixit

Western democracies have an in-built design defect: By allowing unbridled freedom to express the most outrageous views, populists can propel themselves to power.

A country is especially vulnerable in the grips of an economic crisis or coming out of war. But a demagogue can seize the opportunity anytime discredited politicians have gone astray, forgotten their mission, or failed to fulfill their mandate. Populists can use the mass media to whip up the electorate with deliberately provocative sound bites designed to foment chauvinism, xenophobia, ultra-nationalism, religious bigotry, and racism. 

Once elected, tyrants begin to systematically dismantle the very institutions that got them into office. They undermine the legislature, interfere with the independent judiciary, tamper with the security apparatus, and undercut the mainstream media’s check-and-balance role. Trump, Modi, Duterte, Erdoğan, and many others generate domestic tribalism and cross-border xenophobia as they disassemble their country’s checks and balances.

The terrifying convergence of social media and xenophobia makes it possible for autocrats to twist the truth through the social web and stoke exaggerated fears of the “other,” the “outsider,” and the “alien.” This doesn’t happen in pure dictatorships. Tyrants don’t need totalitarianism to rise up; they can thrive even better in democracies. You don’t need a dictator to roll back democracy and shackle the media; elected demagogues can do that just fine.

Once in power, elected despots are smart enough not to do anything as crude as jail journalists. They silence a selection of critical media by snaring journalists with trumped up charges or entangle them with defamation suits. Journalists then self-censor, a practice much more insidious and sinister than overt censorship.

But mainstream media are beginning to realize false equivalences reward xenophobia and bigotry. The mantra of objectivity is finally being challenged. People are realizing it is more important to be truthful than neutral. When the central values of democracy and press freedom are threatened, journalists turn into activists, because they are not just defending their own freedom, but the citizens’ right to know.

When the executive and legislative branches of the state are tottering, therefore, we in the media fight fascism by reinforcing the other two pillars of democracy: the judiciary and independent press.

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Kunda Dixit is the editor and publisher of Nepali Times, a weekly English language newspaper in Kathmandu. He writes about the media’s interface with climate, conflict, the internet, etc. He is the author of the media textbook, Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered, as well as curator of the triology of photobooks on the Nepal conflict. 

[Photo courtesy of Joe Frazier]

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