Freedom of the press is a bastion of a thriving democracy, and we must do all we can to preserve it. Ch’ng Chin Yeow writes.
The failure of democracy in the US under outgoing President Donald Trump is by no means a failure of democracy as a whole.
Indeed, the US under an authoritarian leader like Trump has revealed how a country with insufficient checks and balances can descend into chaos. In many ways, Trump has been almost a dictator, wielding and some might say abusing his power.
Trump’s Republican politicians are afraid of him because he can ruin their political careers by rallying his supporters against them. Some of these Republican politicians are also trying not to antagonise Trump and his supporters because they are vying to inherit Trump’s support base, potentially by imitating his rhetoric once he is no longer President.
Fareed Zakaria of the Washington Post and CNN (8 November tweet) talks about how the US under Trump was on the verge of descending into an illiberal democracy. This is defined as a system where elections are held with popular participation, but the leaders use their power to attack the rule of law, minority rights, the freedom of the press, and other institutions, procedures and norms that make up the core of constitutional governments.
Fortunately, Americans came out in droves to vote Trump out in the 2020 presidential election. The election showed the US still had some checks and balances in its liberal democracy, unlike other authoritarian regimes.
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Autocratic and other self-serving leaders try to hold on to power with their iron grip. The methods they use may vary.
Trump’s prolonged refusal to acknowledge his defeat at the presidential election was reminiscent of dictators around the world. He used all possible means to try to steal the election. These included asking the swing states’ legislature (Michigan and Pennsylvania which he lost) to certify him the winner, packing the court with conservative Republican judges, hoping they would rule in his favour on matters pertaining to the election results. But thus far he has had no success as he and his legal team have not been able to provide any compelling evidence.
In Malaysia, many believe that there was an attempt to overturn the popular vote after Pakatan Harapan won the 2018 general election. Mahathir was kept waiting to be sworn in. Many PH supporters were nervous including Mahathir’s son Mukhriz who tweeted: ’’Setelah lama menunggu, Ayahanda Tun Dr Mahathir mendapat Perkena untuk mengangkat sumpah sebagai Perdana Menteri Malaysia jam 9.30 malam nanti. Syukur Alhamdullilah” (After a long wait, my father Tun Dr Mahathir has received consent to be sworn in as Malaysia’s Prime Minister at 9.30pm. Thanks be to God).
Even Mahathir was concerned. He held a press conference the morning after, addressing the urgency of being sworn in as prime minister.
Many Malaysians were worried that in those last critical hours, Najib was still trying to form a government by allegedly enticing defectors to his Barisan Nasional.
Assorted tools for stealing elections
Other tools available to steal a free and fair election include money politics in its many forms (eg enticing voters with cash, sumptuous door prizes during campaigning and paying for defections), gerrymandering and crowding the field of candidates. CNN exposed that two ‘ghost candidates’ were included in the two Florida Senate races by the Republican Party and successfully defeated the Democrats candidates by taking votes away from them.
Desperate leaders might even declare fake election results or attempt to declare a state of emergency to hold on to power.
Many Malaysians were duly concerned that Muhyiddin’s recent attempt requesting the King to declare a state of emergency was an attempt to hold his fragile backdoor government together. Malaysians are quite familiar with some of these tools.
Tactics of hate, fear and blame
All demagogue leaders including Trump play the blame game by making others scapegoats. He painted the blacks as the Antifa, the radical liberal left that is out to destroy American values. He painted the Democrats as the socialists (some of his people even used the term communist) to scare Americans. He was able to influence his supporters by telling them what they want to hear, whether it was some racist rhetoric or blaming others for their grievances.
In Malaysia, politicians and others use similar strategies, playing up the threats to the Malays by the non-Malays to divide Malaysian society. This has lead to the continuous justification of the use of race-based instead of needs-based policies. Mahathir’s attendance at the Malay Dignity Congress in 2019 was an example of such demagoguery.
Observers note that such policies have actually enriched cronies and those politically well connected disproportionately more than the poor Malays, many of whom remain poor after decades of such affirmative policies.
Trump’s tweets have been his most powerful propaganda machine. Even after the election, he tweeted fake messages saying he had won big, only to have the election stolen by the Democrats. He used a simple slogan “Stop the steal” to rally his supporters as well as getting them to contribute to his political fund.
In Malaysia, under Najib Razak’s administration, similar propaganda machinery was used. His ‘cyber troopers’ constantly sent out propaganda and fake messages. His most ardent cyber trooper was prolific in sending out messages that were often fact-checked to be fake by Sarawak Report and others.
Najib’s slogan “Malu apa, Bossku” (What’s there to be ashamed of, Boss) actually gained traction among his supporters. Propaganda and the use of slogans are often effectively used by failed leaders.
Attack and discredit the free press
Freedom of the press is essential when it comes to reporting the truth. Often, it is the first pillar of democracy to be discredited and destroyed by demagogues and self-serving leaders. Independent media report the inconvenient truth that these leaders do not want to hear and do not want the people to hear.
Trump constantly discredits the press as spreading fake news. This has led to a highly partisan society. To his supporters, his every attack on the press is a licence to act out their loyalty towards him.
Trump’s tweets and his speeches played down the threats of Covid-19 contrary to his own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This resulted in many Americans refusing to wear masks, practise physical distancing and taking the necessary measures. That has led to the US having the highest number of Covid-19 cases and deaths. He turned Covid-19 into a very politically divisive partisan issue.
With the First Amendment to the US Constitution protecting freedom of speech, we get to see the truth of Trump’s every act and every lie, precisely because the press in the US refuses to be silenced and intimidated. Some journalists like CNN’s Chris Cuomo have received numerous death threats from Trump’s supporters while some journalists have received verbal abuse from Trump personally at his official press briefings.
In Malaysia under Najib, the authorities ordered and suspended The Edge Financial Daily and The Edge Weekly for three months after their reporting on the 1MDB financial scandal.
In 1987, Mahathir launched Operation Lalang purportedly as a means to prevent racial riots. Over a hundred people including NGO activists, opposition politicians, intellectuals, students, artists, scientists and others were detained without trial under the harsh Internal Security Act. Three newspapers, The Star, Sin Chew Jit Poh and Waten also had their publishing permits revoked.
An anniversary report in The Star looking back at Operation Lalang highlighted the hardships suffered by the people who were put in prison. Affected journalists had great difficulty in making ends meet: they had to take up unskilled jobs and depend on the charity of friends and relatives to survive.
Freedom of the press inevitably becomes the victim when demagogues and self-serving leaders do not like what the press is reporting. It has happened both in the US and Malaysia.
Democracy is not about mob rule. It is fragile. People can learn a lot from Trump’s failed attempt at hijacking US democracy. We can see some similarities with Trump’s autocratic system of governance. If Malaysians understand them, we can avoid similar pitfalls and overcome weaknesses already in practice by political leaders.
The press must report freely without fear or favour.
Ch’ng Chin Yeow has an interest in many issues and subjects, including history, mineralogy and human behaviour. Based in Penang, he truly likes to be a busybody