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11/10/2022 | Opinion - Journalism and the Threat of Neo-Populism

Dr. Imran Khalid

The first live debate ahead of presidential elections in Brazil saw the candidates indulging in extremely heated and offensive oratory, but at one point the populist President Jair Bolsonaro crossed all possible redlines while answering a question from one journalist. “I think you go to sleep thinking about me. You have a crush on me,” Bolsonaro told Vera Magalhães after she asked him about Brazil’s COVID-19 vaccination rate. “You are a disgrace to journalism in Brazil,” he continued acidly.


Magalhães, a columnist working for Jornal O Globo, in contrast, reacted in a rather somber and professional tone, stating that Bolsonaro’s attitude was “absolutely out of control, unnecessary, and… harmful to himself.” She said she believed Bolsonaro “doesn’t like to be questioned by women.” Bolsonaro’s insulting comments to Magalhães come after he has faced ample criticism over his attitude toward women in general. The far-right populist disagrees of course, pointing to his government’s support for laws in favor of women’s rights and claiming that “a large part of women in Brazil love me” because he opposes legalizing drugs.

The episode outlined above sounds quite familiar, echoing a similar incident on August 27 when, addressing a gathering in Jhelum, former prime minister Imran Khan also snobbishly lashed out at all journalists who dared criticize him or ask “difficult” questions. He referred to all those journalists as “lifafay and zameer farosh” (corrupt and conscious sellers) who were advising him to temporarily pause his protest campaign because of the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe caused by devastating floods in Pakistan. Even further back, it resembles the notorious incident of Donald Trump raging against CNN’s Jim Acosta, when Trump’s morning post-midterms presser devolved into an historic White House fracas when Acosta poked the presidential bear with his line of questioning about Trump’s caravan invasion rally rhetoric. “That’s enough! Put down the mic!” Trump shouted. “CNN should be ashamed of itself having you working for them. You are a rude, terrible person. You should not be working for CNN. The way you treat Sarah Huckabee is horrible. The way you treat other people is horrible!” Trump hissed at Acosta.

In recent years, a long line of populist leaders has suddenly popped up on the global political radar – Donald Trump, Imran Khan, Boris Johnson, Narendra Modi, Emmanuel Macron, and Viktor Orban to name a few. All of them share a lot in common, particularly their theatrical demeanor and extreme disdain for the legacy media and professional journalists. This wave of radicalized populism has produced numerous such episodes where the populist politicians have directly and aggressively bullied and slighted journalists – and particularly female journalists – who happen to ask them any pricking questions or challenge their preferred narratives. This aggressive anti-journalist trend, arising out of their intrinsic fear of being exposed and challenged publicly, is a relatively new phenomenon that traces its roots to the introduction of social media as an overwhelmingly powerful propaganda tool in this new era of emerging technologies.

The level to which journalism is being challenged and threatened is certainly unprecedented throughout the history of the profession. The content and authority of traditional news outlets are both being questioned, and their former monopoly on people’s attention is being increasingly diluted due to social media platforms.

The emergence of populist politics is yet another momentous challenge, manifested in some cases by players openly hostile to journalists and even to the idea of press freedom in general.

By exploiting the electoral mandate to undermine core institutions like the courts or news media, populism creates a political tribalism and cultism that inflames divisions, blunts civil discourse, and eschews political compromise. Populism mostly mobilizes people who have not been politically involved. At the same time, the relationship between populist communicators and the media has typically been thorny and strained.  Populist leaders mostly receive massive coverage in the mainstream press, and the news media outlets are typically portrayed by populist actors as part of a “corrupt” elite; yet ironically, on the other hand, these populist actors are also addicted to the “steroids of publicity” that these outlets can provide

The populist impulse affects a big chunk of the public, which makes it quite difficult for the legacy media to provide balanced coverage amid mounting pressure from populist leaders. Yet some populist actors have systematically targeted the media as fake, lying, or unfair. That’s a challenge for journalists. There’s reason to think that journalist-bashing by politicians has very negative effects on the followers of these populist leaders, who have at times resorted to using violence against dissenting journalists.

Populist politicians don’t trust the media. They believe that the press is prejudiced and not a true representation of society. What populist leaders like Donald Trump, Bolsonaro, and Imran Khan either don’t comprehend, or don’t care about, is that their own offensive actions against a journalist directly encourages their “fanatic devotees” to take it a step further. One day a political leader attacks the media, and the next day journalists are not merely the target of critiques, but death threats. A disproportionate number of those threats are aimed at female journalists, who experience sexualized abuse, gender-related threats, and gutter-talk behavior.  The general public appears to have little understanding of populism, and might see it as a fresh development or something that is entirely benign. But make no mistake: the rise of populist politics poses very serious challenges to journalists, legacy media, and democracy in general.

***The views expressed in this article belong to the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of (Canada)


Center for the Study of the Presidency
Freedom House