This statement was originally published on freedomhouse.org on 5 June 2019.
By Sarah Repucci, Senior Director for Research and Analysis
- Freedom of the media has been deteriorating around the world over the past decade.
- In some of the most influential democracies in the world, populist leaders have overseen concerted attempts to throttle the independence of the media sector.
- While the threats to global media freedom are real and concerning in their own right, their impact on the state of democracy is what makes them truly dangerous.
- Experience has shown, however, that press freedom can rebound from even lengthy stints of repression when given the opportunity. The basic desire for democratic liberties, including access to honest and fact-based journalism, can never be extinguished.
The fundamental right to seek and disseminate information through an independent press is under attack, and part of the assault has come from an unexpected source. Elected leaders in many democracies, who should be press freedom’s staunchest defenders, have made explicit attempts to silence critical media voices and strengthen outlets that serve up favorable coverage. The trend is linked to a global decline in democracy itself: The erosion of press freedom is both a symptom of and a contributor to the breakdown of other democratic institutions and principles, a fact that makes it especially alarming.
According to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World data, media freedom has been deteriorating around the world over the past decade, with new forms of repression taking hold in open societies and authoritarian states alike. The trend is most acute in Europe, previously a bastion of well-established freedoms, and in Eurasia and the Middle East, where many of the world’s worst dictatorships are concentrated. If democratic powers cease to support media independence at home and impose no consequences for its restriction abroad, the free press corps could be in danger of virtual extinction.
Experience has shown, however, that press freedom can rebound from even lengthy stints of repression when given the opportunity. The basic desire for democratic liberties, including access to honest and fact-based journalism, can never be extinguished, and it is never too late to renew the demand that these rights be granted in full.
Attacks on press freedom in democracies
In some of the most influential democracies in the world, large segments of the population are no longer receiving unbiased news and information. This is not because journalists are being thrown in jail, as might occur in authoritarian settings. Instead, the media have fallen prey to more nuanced efforts to throttle their independence. Common methods include government-backed ownership changes, regulatory and financial pressure, and public denunciations of honest journalists. Governments have also offered proactive support to friendly outlets through measures such as lucrative state contracts, favorable regulatory decisions, and preferential access to state information. The goal is to make the press serve those in power rather than the public.
The problem has arisen in tandem with right-wing populism, which has undermined basic freedoms in many democratic countries. Populist leaders present themselves as the defenders of an aggrieved majority against liberal elites and ethnic minorities whose loyalties they question, and argue that the interests of the nation—as they define it—should override democratic principles like press freedom, transparency, and open debate.
Among Free countries in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report, 19 percent (16 countries) have endured a reduction in their press freedom scores over the past five years. This is consistent with a key finding of Freedom in the World—that democracies in general are undergoing a decline in political rights and civil liberties. It has become painfully apparent that a free press can never be taken for granted, even when democratic rule has been in place for decades.
Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary and Aleksandar Vučić’s administration in Serbia have had great success in snuffing out critical journalism, blazing a trail for populist forces elsewhere. Both leaders have consolidated media ownership in the hands of their cronies, ensuring that the outlets with the widest reach support the government and smear its perceived opponents. In Hungary, where the process has advanced much further, nearly 80 percent of the media are owned by government allies. *
Cultivation of progovernment media is spreading to neighboring states. The leader of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, until recently part of that country’s ruling coalition, was caught on video attempting to collude with Russians to purchase the largest national newspaper and infuse its coverage with partisan bias. Score declines linked to economic manipulation of media—including cases in which the government directs advertising to friendly outlets or encourages business allies to buy those that are critical—were more common across Europe over the past five years than in other parts of the world. Such tactics of influence and interference are a relatively recent phenomenon on the continent, which has generally displayed strong support for press freedom since the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago.
In Israel, one of the few democracies in the Middle East, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly excoriated investigative reporters and now faces corruption charges for allegedly offering regulatory favors to two major media firms in exchange for positive coverage. Although Netanyahu has resisted efforts to formally indict and try him on these charges, the evidence suggests that the prime minister was willing to sacrifice press freedom in order to maintain political power. Many voters apparently accepted this tradeoff in the April 2019 elections, putting Netanyahu’s party and its allies in a position to form a new ruling coalition.
India, the world’s most populous democracy, is also sending signals that holding the government accountable is not part of the press’s responsibility. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has supported campaigns to discourage speech that is “antinational,” and government-aligned thugs have raided critical journalists’ homes and offices. The media have become widely flattering of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who won reelection last month, amid allegations that the government issues directives on how the press should cover his activities and intimidates journalists who push back. The government has also been selective in the allocation of television licenses, effectively excluding unfriendly outlets from the airwaves.
In perhaps the most concerning development of recent years, press freedom has come under unusual pressure in the United States, the world’s leading democratic power. Although key news organizations remain strong and continue to produce vigorous reporting on those in office, President Donald Trump’s continual vilification of the press has seriously exacerbated an ongoing erosion of public confidence in the mainstream media. Among other steps, the president has repeatedly threatened to strengthen libel laws, revoke the licenses of certain broadcasters, and damage media owners’ other business interests. The US constitution provides robust protections against such actions, but President Trump’s public stance on press freedom has had a tangible impact on the global landscape. Journalists around the world now have less reason to believe that Washington will come to their aid if their basic rights are violated.
Fueling a global decline
The breakdown of global press freedom is closely related to the broader decline of democracy that Freedom House has tracked for the past 13 years. Although the press is not always the first institution to be attacked when a country’s leadership takes an antidemocratic turn, repression of free media is a strong indication that other political rights and civil liberties are in danger. Assaults on media independence are frequently associated with power grabs by new or incumbent leaders, or with entrenched regimes’ attempts to crush perceived threats to their control.
Over the past five years, countries that were already designated as Not Free in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report were also those most likely to suffer a decline in their press freedom scores, with 28 percent of Not Free countries experiencing such a drop. Partly Free countries were almost equally likely to experience a gain as a decline in press freedom, reflecting the volatility of these middle performers and the complex forces influencing their trajectory. The worsening records of Not Free states, combined with the negative trend among Free countries, have driven the overall decline in global press freedom.
While populist leaders in democracies seek to secure and build on their gains by taming the press, established autocratic governments continue to tighten the screws on dissenting voices, as any breach in their media dominance threatens to expose official wrongdoing or debunk official narratives. In Russia in 2018, authorities moved to block the popular messaging application Telegram after the company refused to hand over its encryption keys to security officials. The government in Cameroon shut down internet service in the restive Anglophone region for most of last year, a heavy-handed reaction to protests and a nascent insurgency stemming from long-standing discrimination against the large Anglophone minority. In Myanmar, two Reuters journalists were sentenced to seven years in prison after a flawed trial in which the court ignored plain evidence that they had been entrapped to halt their investigation of military atrocities against the Rohingya minority; although they were recently pardoned, they were not exonerated.
The downgrades in various countries can be attributed to a range of legal, political, and economic factors, but some stand out as more concerning and pervasive. Violence and harassment aimed at particular journalists and media outlets have played some role in 63 percent of the countries with a press freedom score reduction over the past five years. The 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi was the most infamous recent case, but it was hardly unique. Journalists in El Salvador received death threats in 2015 after they uncovered stories of police abuse and extrajudicial killings. A Malian journalist who was outspoken about rampant political corruption was shot in the chest in 2017. Also that year, a Tanzanian journalist investigating the murders of local officials disappeared, and his fate remains a mystery.
Trends in press freedom differ by region. Since 2014, there has been no net change in the average press freedom score for the Americas or Asia-Pacific, and sub-Saharan Africa has seen a slight increase of 3 percent. But the average scores in the two least free regions of the world, Eurasia and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), declined by 9 percent and 11 percent, respectively, while press freedom in Europe—where four out of every five countries are Free—dropped by 8 percent.
In Eurasia and MENA, the media in the past year have faced an intensification of traditional challenges. Examples include new legislative restrictions in Belarus, further arrests and convictions in Lebanon, and heightened insecurity and fatalities in war-torn Yemen. These developments illustrate the ways in which already difficult environments can grow steadily worse in the absence of meaningful international support for media independence and other fundamental rights.
Even in the regions where average scores were more stable, press freedom has come under threat in individual countries. A new privacy law in Nepal restricts collection of the personal information of any individual, including public officials, exploiting legitimate concerns about privacy to suppress media scrutiny of political leaders’ conflicts of interest or corruption. In Pakistan, security agents have allegedly warned journalists against coverage of taboo subjects, such as abuses by the military, or given reporters instructions on how to cover specific political issues. The regime in China has worked to close off the last remaining avenues for accessing uncensored information by increasing pressure on private technology companies to police the content on their platforms more assiduously.
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Source: MEDIA FEED