Information Freedom Under Threat: Three Questions with Journalist Rickey Bevington (MMF '14)
Both Americans and Europeans report growing distrust of mainstream news outlets—turning to increasingly narrow news sites less likely to uphold journalistic norms. How do leaders fix this broken trust, and what role can media play in fostering dialogue during this period of polarization?
Georgia Public Broadcasting journalist Rickey Bevington (MMF ’14) traveled this month to Europe to find out.
In Budapest, Hungary and Belgrade, Serbia, Bevington engaged leaders across media outlets and NGOs, investigating the different challenges across regions contributing to the overall common problem of lack of trust she identified in her TED Talk, “The Future of News Media is in Our Hands.” Hungary faces an acute crisis due to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s growing government control of media outlets, as GPB and NPR point out in coverage of Bevington’s investigation. In Serbia, independent news media similarly struggle for audience bandwidth as pro-government sources dominate the mainstream.
Information warfare, argues Bevington after her Alumni Leadership Action Grant funded research trip, represents the single greatest threat to liberal democracy. Bevington shares this and other insights with us below.
When and why did you conceive the idea to travel to Hungary and Serbia to examine shared challenges and solutions to threats to information freedom?
The inspiration to do a project about media freedoms came during the April 2017 GMF Triennial Transatlantic Leadership Retreat in Italy. But it wasn’t until I heard the story of a European Marshall Memorial Fellow that the concept came together. At the end of August 2017, Andras Desi (MMF ‘06) led an alumni council policy call. He described how the ruling Hungarian party Fidesz had transformed the country’s mainstream media into propaganda for the party’s political purposes. After listening to him illustrate how quickly media freedoms can erode in a European democracy, I knew I had to act.
What are you learning on the ground that is surprising you most?
The biggest surprise came from meetings with Fidesz party members who say winning elections gives them the right to manipulate mainstream media to their political interests. They say it’s in keeping with Europe’s history of news sources having a known political agenda. Hungarian news consumers, they say, are smart enough to choose their news.
This is a notable contrast to Americans’ expectation that mainstream news media strives to be politically impartial to serve as a “check and balance” on the government. Americans tolerate propaganda as part of our commitment to freedoms of speech and press, but we expect it to remain on the fringes of our information spectrum.
Give us a sense of what your findings might lead to—what idea do you think you’ll work to lead around when you return back to Atlanta, Georgia?
Information warfare may today be the single greatest threat to liberal democracy. We must strengthen the institutional, legal and cultural safeguards of a politically independent mainstream press.
Andras Desi and I will continue to discuss how we can collaborate on programming and education regarding what's happening in Hungarian news media. I hope to find similar partners in Serbia. The next step is to invite even more MMF Alumni into the collaboration. We hope to develop more projects in the coming months.
In the immediate term, as a board member of the Atlanta Press Club, I will participate in public media literacy education sessions. In my capacity as an anchor at Georgia Public Broadcasting, I will consider launching a regular radio segment/podcast highlighting real-time examples of issues in the media relating to independence, objectivity, propaganda, and quality. Finally, I plan to educate myself about American media law, especially around media ownership, and possibly get involved with organizations that bolster legal protections of independent journalism.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.