There are few better-recognised journalists in the world than Christiane Amanpour, and few better placed to talk about the changing nature of threats to journalism.

Currently the CNN chief international anchor with her own flagship global affairs programme, Amanpour built her reputation covering the Iran-Iraq War in the '80s and the Bosnian War in the '90s. She described the latter as being "dumped into propaganda".

She has also interviewed some of the best-known authoritarian leaders, including Yasser Arafat, Muammar Gaddafi, Nicolás Maduro and Pervez Musharraf.

Speaking at Financial Times' Future of News event last week, Amanpour discussed what the rise of authoritarianism in the modern age means for media freedoms. The coronavirus pandemic, she said, has also played a big part.

"Authoritarianism - like any of those 'isms' - flourish when populations are under massive stress, when there is an economic crisis, when there is a confusion about where the truth lies and therefore [governments] can exploit that confusion," she explains.

"What worries me is that authoritarianism is creeping westward where it has no business belonging. The sanctity, or rather the integrity, of democracy as practised for several hundred years from the US back east into Europe is really under threat."

The role of social media platforms

Authoritarians are enabled by institutions, Amanpour added, referring to the courts, branches of government, and the media. She identified fragmented media landscapes and polarised social media ecosystems as a core problem, causing division amongst audiences.

Social media platforms, that wanted to champion free speech, have become an avenue of mis- and disinformation from the very top offices. For countries where social media is the predominant source of news, the harm to press freedom is much greater.

In the US, CNN was one of several news organisations to fact-checks claims that President Trump made around the lethality of covid-19 compared to the flu. While Facebook had removed the post, Twitter opted to put it behind a 'misleading' warning and, bizarrely, retaining the retweet option. Amanpour was frustrated with Twitter's handling of this case, saying social media will not be on the side of publishers until it is subject to a similar code of conduct or ethics.

"In the last four years in the US we have really seen [social media] reveal itself in all of its massive ugliness. I mean that because what it's done is completely divert people off the road of truth, fact and knowledge. It has polarised, politicised and poisoned even the most basic areas of discussion."

Standing up to threats

The fact remains that the media must stand up against new threats to freedom, referring to the UK government's threats to boycott BBC Radio 4's Today programme or the US president who regularly launches assaults on the media.

"Most world leaders just don't like journalists, and they don't like journalism unless it's there to flatter them," Amanpour says.

"Even those which belong to democratic nations and know they need to respect the underpinning of the democracy which is a free and independent fair press, nobody really likes it."

Putting coverage into perspective

Throughout her career, it is Amanpour's pursuit of the truth which has helped her persevere through difficult stories, recalling her coverage of the genocide in the Bosnian war. She quickly learned objectivity and neutrality are not the same and journalists cannot be neutral in the face of injustice.

Speaking about the need for the truth, Amanpour reflected on the accurate representation of the coronavirus science and the facts around climate emergency.

"There was a mistaken idea that fairness and balance were more important than the truth. Journalists and organisations for decades have believed they should equate a minuscule denying group with the overwhelming body of science," she says.

"We need to really get a grip and understand where the truth is and report the truth, and understand that is what [it means to be] objective."

Finding conviction

She admitted that she does not envy journalists reporting from China, where media freedoms are much more restricted even for the general population. What she learned from her years of reporting on revolutions in Iran and Afghanistan is to depend on the conviction and consent of people on the ground.

"Sadly, I've been in this position all my career. Whether it's in Iran [in 2009], telling the stories of brave revolutionaries who were not armed revolutionaries but young people who simply wanted reform and a better way of life," she recalls.

"I had to ask them over and over again 'Are you sure that I can publish this? This will be on CNN, it will go around the world, they will see it in Iran. Are you sure?' They were so convinced that they wanted to tell their story that they said yes.

"You have to balance the good of putting that news out against the risk to the people. I've developed for myself a certain code of risk-benefit analysis and it involves having consent."

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