Democracy is either in retreat or has disappeared altogether in many parts of the world. The Feb. 1 military coup in Myanmar is only one of the many instances that validate that conclusion.
Only in very brief moments was democracy ever a reality in Russia, where opposition leaders are jailed, protests violently dispersed and participants arrested, and critical journalists murdered.
Even Maoist students and labor leaders have been imprisoned in China, where State media present only the government version of events, and amendments to the constitution have lifted limits to the term of office of its current president.
Supposedly “the world’s largest democracy,” India is now under the rule of a Hindu nationalist party that is restricting the Muslim minority’s rights.
In Latin America, Brazil has fallen into the rule of a tyranny that disdains free expression and freedom of assembly.
Much of democracy in Africa has similarly collapsed under the rule of warlords and the conflicts stoked by poverty and political instability.
In Asia, the Myanmar military deposed, arrested, and detained the leaders of the National League for Democracy after they had overwhelmingly retained control of the government in free elections.
Military rule in Thailand ended in 2019, but a return to it is still likely. Meanwhile, restrictions on free speech are still in force, particularly when it involves lese-majeste (criticism of, or affronts to, members of the royal family).
Democracy is also under threat in the Philippines, the military-dominated government of which quite ironically declared its support for democracy in Myanmar while describing the Feb. 1 military coup there as “an internal matter.”
But it is not solely in East and Southeast Asia, or in the previously “emerging democracies” of Eastern Europe and the “less developed” countries where democracy has been significantly eroded. It has happened as well in such Western “bastions of democracy” as the United Kingdom and the United States.
Whether in Eastern Europe, in the West, in Latin America or in Asia, political scientists and historians have attributed the decline of democracy to “the lure of authoritarianism.” Like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, many of the tyrants in power today were elected in generally free elections; and even the military establishments of Thailand and Myanmar are represented in their respective parliaments.
But what most of all validates the view that authoritarianism has become seductive enough for it to be enshrined even through free elections is what happened and is still happening in the United States.
Donald Trump campaigned during the 2016 US presidential elections with an anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, pro-white nationalist platform laced with anti-press freedom and anti-free expression rhetoric. His politics of hate and contempt for democratic principles and the US Constitution appealed to sectors of the electorate that were big enough to elect him to office. After four years during which he encouraged the use of violence against protesters, people of color and journalists, Trump won nearly enough votes in 2020 to win a second term.
His Feb. 13 acquittal in his second impeachment trial is based on his Senate allies’ fears that convicting him for inciting his followers’ Jan. 6 attack on the US Congress would cost them votes in the 2022 midterm elections. It is further proof of the populist power of authoritarianism.
The range of possible reasons behind the appeal of tyranny has included mass disappointment with what is thought to be democracy, and the mistaken assumption that dictatorships are more competent than democracies. But the failure of intellectuals, writers, and the media to educate the mass of the citizenry has also been blamed for it.
As part of the cultural system that shapes the political consciousness, attitudes and beliefs of a given population, the media are indeed crucial to the making of a people enlightened enough to understand the impact on their lives of the leaders they choose: their mandate is to provide the information entire populations need to make that choice.
Despots and tyrants often target the media for suppression, but the increasingly widespread preference for authoritarian rule over democracy is at least partly due to them. The newspapers, television, radio, and online news sites inundate the entire planet with trillions of bytes of information daily, but either they are not as influential as they are thought to be, or are not the vehicles of enlightenment so sorely needed in these times.
Issues of accessibility aside, one problem seems to be that with only a few exceptions, much of the reporting the world is getting is in the category of “descriptive journalism,” which in contrast to “interpretive journalism” is supposed to report “just the facts” without analysis and interpretation. In many instances, for example, journalists limit themselves to merely quoting and reporting — to “describing” — what this or that bureaucrat, business kingpin, or celebrity said without providing the media audience its meaning.
The news media audience wants and needs the facts — what happened to whom, when, where, why and how. But the facts alone are not enough guides to arriving at the truth and the knowledge men and women need to empower them into understanding, and if necessary, into changing, their social and natural environments.
To be of any value, the press must provide not “just the facts” but also their meaning, and the only way it can do that is to note that an event in the news is part of a longer chain of events — of a history — and to subject it to some analysis.
The burgeoning threat to democracy and the allure of the siren song of authoritarianism are demonstrating that “descriptive journalism” is incapable of explaining to the disinformed a world that is becoming more and more complex.
One need not go beyond the country’s borders for examples to validate the necessity for interpretation, analysis and explanation. Climate change is a threat against all of humanity, the impact of which is evident in the number of the increasingly violent typhoons that have smashed into the Philippines and the havoc they have caused. But that fact has not been adequately explained, analyzed, and given the context that could arm the citizenry with the knowledge that could lead it to demand a coherent State response to the national crisis driven by global warming. Instead the media limit themselves to reporting from where a typhoon is approaching, its expected landfall, the name it has been given, what is its strength, how fast it is moving, and, in the aftermath, how many were killed and injured and how much was the cost of the catastrophe to the country’s agricultural sector.
Equally critical to democratic choice is the need for the citizenry to gain some understanding not only of the typhoons, the earthquakes, the volcanic eruptions, the floods and the other disasters that regularly afflict this country, but also the government policies, the crime, the rampant corruption, and the thousand and one other issues and events whose complexity defies the understanding of millions. Filipinos need to understand why the so-called Anti-Terrorism Act is a threat to their freedoms; what government is doing to address the COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) contagion; and why the economy is in recession, its impact on the citizenry, and what can be done about it.
That cannot happen unless those issues are reported, but beyond providing only the facts about them, also explained, analyzed and interpreted. Only then can the citizenry be sufficiently informed to choose democracy over despotism and tyranny — either through elections, or direct political action as Filipinos have twice succeeded in doing at EDSA.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).