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Background of the problem

Suppose, I am a president/prime-minister of a country 'X', and my country has an arch-enemy alongside my country's border who is more wealthy, powerful, populous, and more cohesive. I came to power in a democratic way with an agenda of cracking down on corruption and oligarchy.

I observe that my media ecosystem has a gang of journalists who, in the name of criticizing my government, actually directly/indirectly serving the neighboring country's agenda. They call it 'freedom of speech', but I see it as a 'slavery mindset' and detrimental to my country's sovereignty. Some of them are media barons/mafias, some of them are on the payslip of the neighbor, some of them are banded with the opposition, and the rest of them think that they are liberal and they have the right to say anything and everything. Knowingly or unknowingly, they are bleeding in their own country.

For instance, they say that I am allotting too much money to my defense force when my neighbor is an existential threat to my country. They say that I am a stooge of the military when the military is essential for my country's existence and I need to maintain close cooperation with them. They say that I am cracking down on opposition when I am actually cracking down on corruption.

Description of my proposal

In order to solve this issue, I am planning to introduce a rating system for journalists. I will first set up a media watchdog and lay out clear criteria for journalism and make these criteria as public as possible. I will make it clear what constitutes criticism and what is detrimental to the sovereignty of the country.

Then, I will propose a rating system for each article or TV news or talk-show. According to the rating system, each individual journalist or TV channel has to maintain a balance between criticism and praise. They are allowed to say negative things but also must highlight the government's achievements. According to the rating, If an individual journalist or TV channel is continuously observed to be saying negative things on the government, his license will be canceled.

In order to do so, their social media accounts and media activity will be monitored. The observations will be published openly in a public web-site.

The question

What would the impact of imposing a rating system for journalism on my country's international relations?

I.e. how would the international community perceive my step? Would I be considered a dictator?

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  • The question in the title is not necessarily the same as stated in the body, because even if you violate EU law and the human rights charter there might not be much of an impact (at least if you are talking about international relations - nobody policies the Human Rights Charter, and once you are inside the EU meaningful sanctions are difficult to impose, and there is no process to kick you out). Can I suggest you make more clear which of the two you want answered? – Eike Pierstorff Sep 7 '20 at 11:49
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    Maybe a better fit for Worldbuilding – Azor Ahai -him- Sep 7 '20 at 17:32
  • Closers: While the Q. has abstracted itself from naming specific nations, this is a pretty straightforward censorship Q. about licensing speech, AKA censorship, with ample historical and contemporary real-world examples for answers to draw upon. – agc Sep 8 '20 at 0:20
  • In lieu of an answer, please peruse Milton's Aeropagitica, written under Cromwell's Protectorate, which four centuries ago worked out the major unfortunate surprises inherent to all similar proposals -- e.g. this Q. I've never seen a single summary or gloss of Aeropagitica, (there are so many), that wasn't inaccurate or reductive and trivializing, so it'd be more profitable to stick with the original. – agc Sep 8 '20 at 0:39
  • What will happen? People will instantly start to game the rating system. – vsz Sep 8 '20 at 8:50
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In democratic systems, the media is often considered the "4th estate" in addition to the 3 estates held by the state (legislative, executive and judicial). A democracy can only work when the voters are informed about what their representatives are doing. Not just the good stuff but also the bad stuff. Which is why it's the media's job to criticize the government. Negative reporting about government actions is not a threat to democracy. It's a vital component of it. When the government doesn't need to worry about how the public perceives its actions, then you no longer have a democracy. You have an autocracy.

But if you impose guidelines on the media to report in a "balanced" manner, then it makes that job very difficult for them.

While it is to be expected that a state would punish media outlets for being too anti-government, the state would be very unlikely to take action if the media outlet is too pro-government. That incentives media to err on the side of caution and be as pro-government as possible. No director wants to be bothered by intimidating government agents wanting to debate politics with them. So they would rather err on the side of caution and be as pro-government as possible. This is why any form of media opinion control is usually perceived as a move from the autocratic dictator's playbook.

So if your country suffers from hostile actors abusing the freedom granted to media in your country for spreading propaganda, then there are other solutions for that problem. Remember that spin doctoring is a multiplayer game:

  • Impose financial sanctions to make it harder for foreign actors (regardless of political allegiance) to finance your media. So all media outlets are primarily dependent on domestic sources of funding.
  • Counter-propaganda in form of founding media outlets funded by the government and letting the public decide which media outlets they consider more trustworthy.
  • Or bypass the media companies altogether and communicate your government policies to the public directly. This has become very easy to do in the age of social media. The Twitter channel of the current President of the United States is one example of how a government can counter what they perceive as unfair media reporting. Whether or not the NY Times and CNN are "fake news" is debatable, but the fact is that Trump's views about these outlets do reach the public and do affect public perception of their reporting.
  • Educate the public in media competency so they can understand which media sources have which biases and agendas and how that should affect their perception of what they see, hear and read.
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  • How does the domestic/foreign funding come into it? Probably most readers and most advertisers of newspaper X are domestic, then how is it a threat to democracy to ban foreign ownership? Or maybe I misunderstand your point. Is the threat to have foreign ownership or to ban foreign ownership or both? – gerrit Sep 7 '20 at 14:02
  • @gerrit The premise of the question is that a hostile foreign state actor might finance media outlets in exchange for them spreading their propaganda. – Philipp Sep 7 '20 at 14:08
  • I understood the question as a dictator pretending that a foreign state actor might do so and using this as an excuse to suppress freedom of the press. – gerrit Sep 7 '20 at 14:09
  • @gerrit it is always both. – fraxinus Sep 7 '20 at 18:48
  • The edit to this post made significant changes, removing entire sentences without the author's consent. Why was this approved? politics.stackexchange.com/review/suggested-edits/34893 – SurpriseDog Sep 7 '20 at 23:38
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This would violate article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

(source: Wikipedia)

Violating the Declaration of Human Rights automatically puts you add odds with EU law. Just to hammer to point home this is also spelled out in the Charter of Fundamental Right of the European Union:

Article 11

Freedom of expression and information

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.

  2. The freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected.

Source

Presidents and Prime Ministers usually do not have the power to draw up lists of acceptable and not acceptable speech, that's a hallmark of a dictatorship (even if it is a "benevolent" or well accepted dictatorship). Your proposal might sound marginally more democratic if you add a law making process that involves more than a decree from a president, and add something like due process for media that wants to appeal your decision (after all, even in democracies you are not allowed to say everything, although no democracy I know of bans media from criticizing the government).

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  • As far as I know, the USA has such a check and balance system in place. – user366312 Sep 7 '20 at 9:58
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    @user366312, if you are asking specifically about the USA you should say so in your question. Also the US president does not have legal power to ban media by decree. – Eike Pierstorff Sep 7 '20 at 10:00
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    I think you mean "marginally less undemocratic" or "marginally more democratic". – Bobson Sep 7 '20 at 12:56
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    @user366312 I am not aware of there being any system in the USA which forces media outlets to report in a politically balanced way. There is the FCC which enforces certain business regulations for media outlets, but as far as I know they do not censor political reporting. That would be very difficult to do due to the 1st amendment to the US constitution which says "Congress shall make no law [...] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press". – Philipp Sep 7 '20 at 13:17
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    "there to ensure criticism is balanced"; a a media major i have to laugh, but pretel, what's this watchdog formally called? – dandavis Sep 7 '20 at 17:59
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Let's assume that you are actually setting fair and unbiased criteria for the media rating. Everything works out, things go well.

One election later, your opposition comes to power and they aren't happy with the criteria, so they shift them a bit. Just a tiny nudge.

On the next election, your party is in power. They aren't happy with the new criteria, so they give them a nudge back, maybe add a little so the next time it'll be harder for the opposition to shift them.

This cycle repeats, again and again. At some point, the originally fair and unbiased criteria are completely unrecognizable.

The problem is that any such rating system is limited by who can set the criteria for it. They need to change with the times in any case, and you won't be able to guarantee that they'll stay fair and balanced forever.

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    This cycle repeats, again and again. At some point, the originally fair and unbiased criteria are completely unrecognizable. --- this could even be true for a constitution of the country. So, I don't see the issue here. – user366312 Sep 7 '20 at 9:52
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Is free speech 100% free?

Other answers have pointed out the stifling of free speech, but I think that's not a complete answer, as free speech is not totally unregulated, and therefore arguments can be made that your system merely streamlines the curation of free speech that already happens today (without accusations of dictatorship).

  • Freedom of speech entails not curtailing the expression of opinions. Incorrect facts can get regulated, e.g. libel/slander laws.
  • Opinions that provoke hatred or criminal action are not inherently excused by freedom of speech on public platforms. Therefore, some newspaper articles are already being regulated right now.
  • Statements that provoke panic (yelling fire in a crowded theatre) are similarly regulated beyond just being free speech.
  • Newspapers are free to choose what they publish and what they don't, and therefore they can voluntarily opt in to your system. This may not cover your entire use case but it does mean your approach could be valid on a voluntary basis.
  • You seem to not actually try to silence those you disagree with, but rather publishing your own separate opinion of those people. However, there's a difference in claiming that this is your intention, and actually doing so. It's a valid argument but whether it's true remains to be seen.

So for the purpose of this answer, I assume your curation will reasonably curate media articles according to the modern zeitgeist, i.e. in a way that is little to no different from e.g. the curation of hate speech.

Further arguments can be made that you are able to make things look better than they in reality are; but that's besides the point. You will be judged by public perception, and this answer presupposes that your curation's public perception is generally considered to be positive (or at least non-negative).
If public perception is negative, then it will obviously be judged negatively, and no further reasoning is needed.


Good vs evil

Whenever you try and sandbox such an approach, consider it from both sides:

  • You mean well, the neighbor doesn't.
  • You don't mean well, the neighbor does.

Any argument that makes your approach come out as good in the first example ("I can stop their bad influence on my legitimate democracy"), will make your approach come out as evil in the second example ("I can stop anyone from diminishing my dictatorship").

Your approach, or any other approach to curtail "bad" information, inherently relies on the expectation of a universally measurable and provable good/evil scale. Such a scale does not exist globally. It exists subjectively for each and every one of us, but my scale doesn't necessarily match up to yours.

Since it's subjective, even though you think you're being benevolent, others (with a different subjective scale) are liable to disagree. No matter how much you argue your own viewpoint, those others will not agree with you and will call you malevolent instead.

I.e. how would the international community perceive my step? Would I be considered a dictator?

Yes. While it's impossible to truly objectively separate valid criticism of a dictator from invalid criticism of a legitimate government; your governmental actions will predominantly be judged by the worst case scenario, which is that of a dictatorship.

On principle alone, you are likely to be judged as a dictator.

What would the impact of imposing a rating system for journalism on my country's international relations?

Think of it like this: speeders can cause accidents, though not all speeders inherently do cause them. Speeding tickets try to curtail accidents. But speeding tickets are given to all who speed, not just speeders who end up causing accidents.

Similarly, your approach isn't proof of dictatorship, but it can further a dictatorial regime. International condemnation tries to curtail dictatorial regimes. International condemnation will come to all who curtail the media in their favor, not just those who curtail the media to further their actual dictatorial regime.

When you are judged to be a dictator, which is what's going to happen in this case, then you will receive international condemnation.

However, the consequences of international condemnation do not amount to much unless you are affected by what people think of you. As a clear example, the world mostly agrees that North Korea is a dictatorship and condemns them as such.
North Korea's international relations are low, but since they don't care about it, it's not really a problem for them.


Trying to regulate it anyway

This is pure logic: in order to regulate X, one must first be able to accurately and objectively measure X. The inability to measure X leads to the inability to fairly regulate X.

An innocuous example here is Belgian traffic law regarding lowering the speed limit on highways when it rains. The proposal has been accepted, on the condition that the government first defines a reasonable way to distinguish a rainy situation from a normal situation.
For months now, no one has been able to come up with a metric that fits well for situations where lowering the speed would actually make a meaningful difference in safety.

Your situation is the same in principle. The goal makes sense (preventing traffic accidents in rainy conditions, preventing misinformation), but it relies on a metric you haven't actually defined (rainy conditions, misinformation).

If you enforce a bad metric, then any bad measurement of that metric (i.e. false positives or false negatives) is directly used to judge your approach by itself.

If you enforce a good metric, then you may actually have found a way to counter the condemnation you get from being judged as a dictatorial regime.

Such a "good" metric would in principle be no different from e.g. policing hate speech, which in most western countries is commonly accepted to be a good thing, and not used as proof of a dictatorial regime.


To summarize

  • Free speech regulation is already a thing, so your approach is nothing new even by modern non-dictatorial standards - contingent on the exact curation you intend to implement and how far removed it is from currently accepted free speech regulation, of course.
  • If you don't care about international relations have an adequate national defense, then how your media curation is perceived is moot as international repercussions don't really affect you.
  • Your suggested system is inherently dictatorial and will be judged and condemned as such.
  • If your curation is viewed positively by those whose opinion you care about, and it reasonably prevents false negatives and false positives, then you're not going to find much meaningful opposition.
  • An exceedingly great metric can counter the claims of dictatorialism, since dictatorialism is generally moot when the actions takes are considered to be for the general good.
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  • This answer serves as a long presentation of your political philosophy on freedom of speech, but I do not think it applies well to the question. The problem is, the person who posted this question does not want any kind of neutral system aimed at preventing societal wrongs in a politically unbiased manner, whatever the merits or drawbacks of the systems you have presented here. They want to prevent criticism of their administration, period. – Obie 2.0 Sep 7 '20 at 18:14
  • "For instance, they say that I am allotting too much money to my defense force when my neighbor is an existential threat to my country." = No criticism of my spending decisions. "They say that I am a stooge of the military when the military is essential for my country's existence and I need to maintain close cooperation with them." = No criticism of my political alliances. "They say that I am cracking down on opposition when I am actually cracking down on corruption." = No criticism of my exclusion of people from the government. The system would look dictatorial because it would be. – Obie 2.0 Sep 7 '20 at 18:15
  • @Obie2.0: The silencing part (revoking license), I agree. The reviewing part (posting reviews of media outlets), I disagree. Also, the entire second section addresses exactly what your comment addresses: one man's good is another man's evil. – Flater Sep 7 '20 at 20:33

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