The U.S.-based democracy watchdog Freedom House says press freedom is declining around the world, right alongside political rights and civil liberties.
In its annual report released Wednesday, the nongovernmental group says global press freedom declined to its lowest point in more than a decade due to continued crackdowns on independent media in authoritarian states and unprecedented threats to journalists in traditionally free societies.
The reports finds press freedoms have been deteriorating across the world with “new forms of repression taking hold in open societies and authoritarian states alike.”
Sarah Repucci, senior director for research and analysis at Freedom House, told VOA that the report found declining press freedoms at “two ends of the spectrum.”
On one hand, regimes that are known to stifle the press are continuing with “very familiar tactics: arrests of journalists, threats to their safety, repressive laws, defamation laws that criminalize free speech,” she said. But, on the other hand, the report found democratically elected leaders who use new tactics to “manipulate the media in ways that are very subtle that enable them to take control of the message that is getting to the population.”
The report assesses the degree of media freedom as either “free,” “partly free” or “not free.”
Freedom House characterizes a free press as a media environment where coverage of political news is robust, state intrusion in media affairs in minimal, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, and the press is not subject to legal and economic pressures.
The report found that a total of 16 nations designated as “free” have seen a reduction in press freedom scores during the past five years. But a disturbing trend showed that in Europe, where four out of every five countries are “free,” average press freedom scores dropped 8%.
Repucci, the report’s lead author, said countries such as Hungary and Serbia “dropped to ‘partly free’ in our freedom in the world survey and have been at the forefront of new tactics for repressing the media.”
Leaders in both countries “had great success in snuffing out critical journalism by consolidating media ownership in the hands of their cronies, ensuring that the outlets with the widest reach support the government and smear their perceived opponents,” the report said.
“But we’re also seeing this in democracies around the world, in India and Israel … and also here in the United States,” Repucci said, adding while the U.S. has in the past stood as the protector of free speech, that history is under threat.
“The kinds of attacks that we’re seeing from the Trump administration are new and are very worrying,” she said. “These are verbal attacks on journalists, threats to change libel laws, threats against individual media outlets. And this is part of what appears to be a trend of undermining the respect that the government has for the role that the media is supposed to play in holding leaders to account.”
Repucci said despite the efforts of the Trump administration, the U.S. maintains strong legal protections in the face of threats and attacks against individual media outlets.
“The major news media have been really strong in pushing back against these attacks and in continuing to publish information that holds leaders to account. But the concern is that norms may be changing, and that it will be difficult to get back to where we were before,” she said.
The report said the increasing influence of national leadership continues its disturbing trend, not only in countries that had been deemed “not free” but in countries that were seen as “partly free.”
“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,” the report noted.
Making things even worse is the increasing influence of nations like China.
As Western nations withdraw their support for global free press, “China is filling that gap, and that is very problematic for free media around the world,” Repucci said.
China is exporting its model of media repression to other countries, especially in Africa.
“They’re doing it by exporting their message and finding friendly outlets that will publish and broadcast that message. They’re doing it by putting pressure on journalists, but also diplomats and media owners in countries to censor, basically, on Beijing’s behalf,” Repucci said.
“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,” the report said.
Harassment aimed at journalists
Violence and harassment aimed at specific journalists and media outlets have played a role in 63 percent of the countries that have seen a decline in press freedom, it said. The report cited the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at an embassy in Turkey as an example.
“Journalists in El Salvador received death threats in 2015 after they uncovered stories of police abuse and extrajudicial killings,” the report said. “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.”
Journalists have also faced imprisonment and threats in Nepal, Myanmar, Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia and France.
But, Freedom House says not all is lost when it comes to press freedom.
Repucci cites Ethiopia, Malaysia, Armenia, Ecuador and Gambia as “encouraging examples” of countries where democratic progress has come hand in hand with media independence.
“Just as restrictions on media freedom frequently precede the erosion of other rights, the removal of such restrictions facilitates and catalyzes further democratic advancements,” the report said.
Repucci said she hopes media freedom will also spread in countries where the populations are fighting for increased political freedoms, such as in Sudan, Algeria and Venezuela.
“The importance of free media really is because of the ability that it gives the population to hold their leaders to account. And that’s why the decline in press freedom is so dangerous for democracy as a whole, and we hope that these positive trends will pick up, but we do have very grave concerns at this time” Repucci told VOA.