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People hold pictures of jailed journalists in Turkey OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

When Fighting Fake News Aids Censorship

Laws meant to curb “fake news” may be well intentioned, but their implementation has been sloppy, with few mechanisms to ensure accountability, transparency, or reversibility. Governments are outsourcing censorship to the private sector, where maximizing shareholder value, not upholding journalistic freedom, drives decision-making.

WASHINGTON, DC – Many media analysts have rightly identified the dangers posed by “fake news,” but often overlook what the phenomenon means for journalists themselves. Not only has the term become a shorthand way to malign an entire industry; autocrats are invoking it as an excuse to jail reporters and justify censorship, often on trumped-up charges of supporting terrorism.

Around the world, the number of honest journalists jailed for publishing fake or fictitious news is at an all-time high of at least 21. As non-democratic leaders increasingly use the “fake news” backlash to clamp down on independent media, that number is likely to climb.

The United States, once a world leader in defending free speech, has retreated from this role. President Donald Trump’s Twitter tirades about “fake news” have given autocratic regimes an example by which to justify their own media crackdowns. In December, China’s state-run People’s Daily newspaper posted tweets and a Facebook post welcoming Trump’s fake news mantra, noting that it “speaks to a larger truth about Western media.” This followed the Egyptian government’s praise for the Trump administration in February 2017, when the country’s foreign ministry criticized Western journalists for their coverage of global terrorism.

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