Press Freedom in a “Downward Spiral,” New Report Finds

Though only one month has passed since two Reuters journalists were freed following more than 500 days in a Myanmar prison, reporters around the world continue to face threats to both their work and their lives.

While Sudan’s new military regime promised increased media freedoms and a platform to report on the country’s ongoing revolution, blocked social media access and raids on the offices of foreign journalists have prevented reporting on this month’s deadly clashes between protestors and security forces.

In Hong Kong, police are being accused of shooting at journalists as they tried to report on last week’s mass demonstrations against a proposed extradition bill. A video shared on social media shows a Taiwan-based journalist shouting “Press! You’re shooting the press! You’re shooting the journalists!” before an officer pointed a tear gas gun at the man.

These events have sparked concerns about the state of global press freedom, which has experienced a sharp decline over the past 10 years, according to a report released this month from independent watchdog organization, Freedom House.

The report, titled “Freedom and the Media: A Downward Spiral,” measured press freedom in law and practice based on standards set in the United Nation’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In addition to direct attacks against journalists including state-sanctioned violence and imprisonment, the report found that world leaders, specifically those running some of the world’s most prominent  democracies, have been using their power to alter public opinion and undermine the role of critical media outlets.

The study revealed that among the countries Freedom House labels “free” in its most recent “Freedom in the World” report, 16 have experienced a drop in their press freedom scores throughout the past five years.

Sarah Repucci, the senior director for research and analysis at Freedom House, said in an interview with Voice of America that this decline in global press freedom is part of a larger trend of increased threats to political and civil liberties around the world.

“The importance of free media really is because of the ability that it gives the population to hold their leaders to account,” Repucci said. “It’s especially concerning, not just because press freedom is a fundamental freedom in itself, but because of its implications for democracy.”

However, Repucci also stated that the report acknowledges progress that developing democracies have made in media freedom over the past few years.

Despite increased concerns on the use of social media to spread harmful ideologies and violent content, especially after the Facebook Live video of the shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019, the Freedom House report also acknowledges that these online platforms have become an important tool for journalists, activists and citizens in developing democracies.

Bloggers and journalists in Armenia and Belarus, for example, have used Facebook Live to document instances of force used by security officials against protestors. These journalists have also used these platforms to challenge government reports on the intentions of anti-government demonstrations. In Venezuela, activist media start-ups such as Efecto Cocuyo (“Firefly Effect”) use the live-streaming platform Periscope to give citizens an alternative to news outlets sympathetic to the government.

The report delves more deeply into the level of press freedom in both leading and developing democracies. Some of the most prominent findings are summarized below.

 

While the United States arguably has some of the strongest legal protections for journalists, guaranteed in the First Amendment, the Freedom House report cites that President Donald Trump’s repeated criticism of the press “has seriously exacerbated an ongoing erosion of public confidence in the mainstream media.”

According to the report, among the recent challenges to press freedom in the U.S. are Trump’s threats to strengthen libel laws, revoke the licenses of particular broadcasters and tarnish the business interests of media owners.

Recent events have also increased concerns over this leading democracy’s ability to promote the importance of press freedom worldwide. The report claims that Trump’s apparent refusal to condemn Saudi Arabia, even after the CIA concluded Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was directly involved in Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s death, demonstrates that “journalists around the world now have less reason to believe that Washington will come to their aid if their basic rights are violated.”

In a March episode of the MediaFile podcast “Long Time No See,” Human Rights Watch’s Middle East researcher Adam Coogle referred to Khashoggi’s murder and the aftermath as another sign for world leaders to make improvements for press freedom globally.

“[Jamal Khashoggi] may, more or less, just become a symbol of brutality and lack of justice and lack of accountability and a representation of what still needs to change,” Coogle said.

The Freedom House report devoted a separate section specifically examining the state of press freedom in China, titled “The Implications for Democracy of China’s Globalizing Media Influence.”

According to the section’s author and Freedom House’s senior research analyst for East Asia Sarah Cook, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continuously works to influence both domestic and global media coverage on the country through three key strategies: promoting the party’s narratives, silencing critical perspectives and managing content delivery systems.

In a 2016 speech, CCP leader Xi Jinping told state media, “wherever the readers are, wherever the viewers are, that is where propaganda reports must extend their tentacles.” A November 2018 Financial Times investigation revealed that the state-run television broadcaster China Central Television provides free content to 1,700 foreign news organizations.

The state also works to censor reports both at home and abroad that are critical of the Chinese government. In September 2018, a partially Chinese-owned newspaper in South Africa discontinued a weekly column after its author reported on alleged abuses in Xinjiang.

The management of content delivery systems has also allowed for increased Chinese influence around the world. In Africa, the Chinese-controlled television service StarTimes holds substantial control over which stations viewers in countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Zambia can access.

Hungary is a parliamentary republic with constitutional protections for press freedom but has become the subject of criticism from press freedom advocates globally to such an extent that Freedom House changed  the country’s status from “free” to “partly free” it its 2019 Freedom in the World Report.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who was elected into office in 2010, has used his Fidesz party’s parliamentary supermajority as a means to institute restrictions on various media groups, courts and NGOs.

According to the 2019 media freedom report, almost 80 percent of Hungarian media is owned by government allies, “ensuring that the outlets with the widest reach support the government and smear its perceived opponents.”

In March, the European People’s Party (EPP) suspended Fidesz over concerns about the Hungarian government’s efforts to undermine independent institutions. In a written response to questions from the EPP last week, Orbán called the criticisms against him and Fidesz “complete nonsense.”

While Freedom House labels the country as “free” in its 2019 Freedom in the World Report, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has recently increased efforts at limiting speech it deems “anti-national.” As a result, the homes and offices of several journalists have been raided by government loyalists.

Additionally, Freedom House also claims that news outlets within the country have become increasingly sympathetic to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was re-elected in May 2019. The outlets who publish reports critical of the government face threats of hate speech laws and contempt-of-court charges, which has led to an increase in “self-censorship” among Indian media.

Multiple incidents over the past few years have also increased concerns over the physical violence journalists may face as a result of their work.

According to the advocacy organization Reporters Without Borders, there were four instances in March 2018 alone in which police attacked journalists attempting to cover protests. Additionally, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that five journalists were killed in India in connection to their work in 2018.

While the media remains heavily restricted in Vietnam, with Freedom House labeling the country as “not free,” social media has become an important tool for activists both in and outside the country.

Freedom House cites an independent Facebook page that has more than 1.3 million followers and is run by activist group Việt Tân. Individuals based in Vietnam and abroad work to provide independent reporting on actions taken by the regime. The page proved to be useful after authorities issued a strict media blackout on reporting of the health of Vietnam’s president Nguyen Phu Trong. Access to news in Vietnam was so limited that Reuters did not report on the president’s illness until 10 days after it had appeared on Việt Tân’s page.

Despite the efforts of citizen journalists, Vietnamese law does not provide strong protections for the press. The one-party state recently passed a cybersecurity law that is closely modeled on China’s and requires companies to store data about Vietnamese users on servers within the country.

The state has also used imprisonment as a means to repress journalists within the state, prompting the UN Human Rights Committee to publish a report condemning the “repression against activists and journalists and executing high numbers of people guilty of minor crimes after unfair trials.” Last month, members of the U.S. Congress wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling on him to advocate for greater freedom of expression in Vietnam.

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