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Media Capture in the Digital Age

The age of censors physically redacting newspapers is mostly over. But press freedom remains highly vulnerable, even in developed democracies, as governments and vested interests engage in a kind of soft control that resembles regulatory capture.

NEW YORK – The last couple of years have not been good for freedom of expression. The governments of Poland, Hungary, and Turkey have become increasingly authoritarian and – like leaders in the Balkans, China, and Russia – increasingly eager to control public discourse. In the United States, too, President Donald Trump relentlessly attempts to discredit the news media, and his administration is unprecedentedly inaccessible to the press.

The age of censors physically redacting newspapers, as I have seen in Vietnam and Myanmar, is mostly over. But, as recent developments show, press freedom remains highly vulnerable, as governments and “vested interests networked with politics,” in the words of the political scientist Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, engage in a kind of soft control that can be described as “media capture.”

Economists used the term “capture” after the financial crisis of 2008 to describe how regulators, who often came from (and returned to) the industry they were supposed to oversee, failed to police the sector properly. Media capture works in much the same way, with political leaders either owning media outlets outright (think of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi) or ensuring that media leaders are loyal to them, whether through cronyism or punishment.

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