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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The press is being pulverized in places where democracy is deteriorating, leaving the world with little visibility into how those regions are transforming under authoritarian rule.

Why it matters: The COVID-19 pandemic was already taking a huge toll on press freedoms around the world. A new wave of geopolitical tension is exacerbating the issue.

Driving the news: In Hong Kong last week, Next Digital, a media company founded by press tycoon Jimmy Lai, said it was shutting down in response to new Chinese Communist Party restrictions that made it impossible to continue operating.

  • "The climate of fear is unbelievable," said Mark Clifford, an independent non-executive director of Next Digital's board. Clifford and other members of the board resigned, citing that environment.
  • "It's not a kleptocracy, like Russia. They don't want money. They just really want to silence this voice," he continued. Beijing regulators essentially made it impossible for the company to operate financially.

The move has shattered hope among press activists that a vibrant free press ecosystem will ever be able to exist in Hong Kong, following the passage of a sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing that dramatically reduces personal freedoms.

  • Lai, who was sentenced to 14 months in prison earlier this year, was one of the most vocal pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong for years.
  • His newspaper, Apple Daily — the biggest publication within Next Digital — shut down in June after authorities froze the bank accounts for the paper and arrested its top leadership. Clifford said Apple Daily sold over 1 million copies on its last day publishing.

The big picture: Hong Kong isn't alone. Around the world, several countries that were hinging on democracy have seen press freedoms fall apart this past year in response to rising authoritarian regimes.

  • Afghanistan, which saw a vibrant press scene grow over the past two decades, has been radically transformed by the Taliban takeover last month. "Less than a month after taking power, the Taliban seem to be letting their masks fall," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire, citing reports that the Taliban has been beating and arresting journalists.
  • Belarus: Belarusian President Alexandre Lukashenko has in the past year taken drastic new measures to target the press, including drastic changes to the country’s media laws that make it much harder for journalists to report. His war on journalism made global headlines in May after leaders used a supposed bomb threat to ground a Ryanair flight carrying an opposition journalist.

Amid the pandemic, several countries, like Hungary and the Philippines, introduced "fake news" laws to curb the spread of social media.

  • Such efforts, experts argue, are not meant to quell misinformation, but rather are used to empower autocrats. Leaders of counties like Turkey and Brazil have introduced similar measures.

What's next: Press experts argue that the rhetoric from the Trump administration inspired other world leaders looking to consolidate power to target the press.

  • The world will be looking to the Biden administration to play a leading role in setting a tone around what the U.S. will deem acceptable.
  • While the Biden administration has pledged transparency domestically, it has also faced some challenges in trying to establish itself as a leader on press freedoms. Press activists condemned the administration's decision earlier this year not to sanction the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of journalist and American citizen Jamal Khashoggi.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Surgeon general: new vaccine policies "part of a long tradition"

Photo: Samuel Corum/CNP/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy defended the Biden administration's latest coronavirus-related measures Sunday, saying they are "part of a long tradition that we have in this country" of taking action to keep people safe.

Why it matters: Murthy's comments on NBC's "Meet the Press," follow President Biden's announcement of a six-pronged plan to combat the virus, which includes aggressive vaccination and testing measures.

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A key Food and Drug Administration advisory panel on Friday overwhelmingly voted against recommending Pfizer vaccine booster shots for younger Americans, but unanimously recommended approving the third shots for individuals 65 and older, as well as those at high-risk of severe COVID-19.

Why it matters: While the votes are non-binding, and the FDA must still make a final decision, Friday's move pours cold water on the Biden administration's plan to begin administering boosters to most individuals who received the Pfizer vaccine later this month.

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L), French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (C), and French ambassador to the U.S. Philippe Etienne. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

France has taken the extraordinary step of recalling its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia after both countries blindsided their French allies with a new military pact and submarine contract, the French Foreign Ministry announced on Friday.

The backstory: While sealing an agreement with the U.S. and U.K. to acquire nuclear submarines, Australia ripped up an existing $90 billion submarine deal with France. That led senior French officials to accuse the U.S. of a "stab in the back."