Freedom of the Press 2017 by Score

14 Jun

Key Global Findings

  • Global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016 amid unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies and new moves by authoritarian states to control the media, including beyond their borders.
  • Only 13 percent of the world’s population enjoys a Free press—that is, a media environment where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.
  • Forty-five percent of the population lives in countries where the media environment is Not Free. The world’s 10 worst-rated countries and territories were Azerbaijan, Crimea, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
  • Politicians in democracies  such as Poland and Hungary shaped news coverage by undermining traditional media outlets, exerting their influence over public broadcasters, and raising the profile of friendly private outlets.
  • United States President Donald Trump disparaged the press, rejecting the news media’s role in holding governments to account for their words and actions.
  • Officials in more authoritarian settings such as Turkey, Ethiopia, and Venezuela used political or social unrest as a pretext for new crackdowns on independent or opposition-oriented outlets.
  • Authorities in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Asia extended restrictive laws to online speech, or simply shut down telecommunications services at crucial moments, such as before elections or during protests.
  • Among the countries that suffered the largest declines were Poland, Turkey, Burundi, Hungary, Bolivia, Serbia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Press Freedom's Dark Horizon — new #fotp2017 report via @FreedomHouseDC freedomofthepressfh.org
Image by KAL.

SPECIAL SECTION

Hobbling a Champion of Global Press Freedom

by Michael J. Abramowitz

Never in the 38 years that Freedom House has been monitoring global press freedom has the United States figured as much in the public debate about the topic as in 2016 and the first months of 2017.

Press freedom globally has declined to its lowest levels in 13 years, thanks both to new threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies, and to further crackdowns on independent media in authoritarian countries like Russia and China.

But it is the far-reaching attacks on the news media and their place in a democratic society by Donald Trump, first as a candidate and now as president of the United States, that fuel predictions of further setbacks in the years to come.

No U.S. president in recent memory has shown greater contempt for the press than Trump in his first months in office. He has repeatedly ridiculed reporters as dishonest purveyors of “fake news” and corrupt betrayers of the national interest. Borrowing a term popularized by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, Trump has labeled the news media as “enemies of the people.” His senior White House adviser described journalists as “the opposition party.”

Such comments suggest a hostility toward the fundamental principles and purposes of press freedom, especially the news media’s role in holding governments to account for their words and actions—as opposed to the government holding the media to account. They also raise concern that the U.S. president may, in effect, be offering a license to political leaders elsewhere who have cracked down on the media as part of a larger authoritarian playbook.

Press Freedom's Dark Horizon — new #fotp2017 report via @FreedomHouseDC freedomofthepressfh.org
Trump takes questions from reporters during a news conference in the East Room at the White House on February 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. Credit: Getty Images.

Still strong, but in decline

The United States remains one of the most press-friendly countries in the world. It enjoys lively, aggressive, and diverse media, and some of the strongest legal protections for reporting and expression anywhere in the world. With a handful of exceptions in recent years, reporters in the United States—in contrast to counterparts in some other countries—have been able to pursue their profession without fear of physical violence.

But press freedom has been on a modest decline in the United States, owing to a variety of factors that predate the Trump presidency. The rise of the internet weakened the financial underpinnings of long-established media organizations; the lack of a new, sustainable business model has diminished coverage of local news, and made in-depth investigative reporting harder to support. The polarization of media into outlets that pursue openly partisan agendas has accelerated, reducing public trust. And the ability of a billionaire (Peter Thiel) to use a privacy lawsuit to help bankrupt a media company (Gawker) last year made publishers and editors uneasy.

Several recent presidents have sought to limit their exposure to reporters, aggressively attempted to bypass mainstream news outlets, or made it difficult to access government records under the Freedom of Information Act. The Obama administration pursued a crackdown on federal officials who leaked information to the press, while many journalists chafed at what they regarded as excessive efforts to control access to the Obama White House.

In 2016, Freedom House saw a slight decline in press freedom in the United States, due mainly to harassment and roughing up of journalists at Trump rallies and a campaign of antisemitic abuse against Jewish journalists on Twitter. It is too soon to know whether the president will follow through on some of his most extreme campaign proposals, such as the threat to pursue more restrictive libel laws. Should he continue his attacks on the press, it could further erode public confidence in the media and set the stage for court or legislative measures that would set back freedom.

Rhetoric, however, is different from governance. So far, despite President Trump’s fierce denunciations of unfavorable but factual stories as “fake news,” there is abundant evidence that major news organizations remain undeterred, even innovative, in pursuing serious investigations of the government and of Trump himself.

Leading by example

Trump’s attacks mirror initial actions in other countries where media freedom subsequently suffered far more drastic restrictions and interference. In Latin America, leaders who publicly criticized independent media and journalists followed up with attempts to break apart media companies, revoke broadcast licenses, or impose onerous regulatory oversight. In countries including Turkey and Hungary, ruling parties have engineered more friendly media sectors through opaque or coerced ownership changes.

The United States will not necessarily follow the same path; it has stronger constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and speech, as well as robust legislative and judicial systems that can check executive power. Though these institutions may be tested, there is ample reason to hope that U.S. press freedom will remain vibrant in the years ahead.

A greater danger is that the United States will stop being a model and aspirational standard for other countries. Protection of press freedom in the United States remains vital to the defense and expansion of press freedom worldwide; indeed, it is a cornerstone of global democracy. When political leaders in the United States lambaste the media, it encourages their counterparts abroad to do the same. When U.S. leaders step back from promoting democracy and press freedom, journalists beyond American shores feel the chill.

The sobering alternative model, seen in authoritarian countries, is to extinguish press freedom, the better to allow a political party, movement, or leader to control information—and to use that control to retain power indefinitely. Further weakening of press freedom in the United States would be a setback for democracy everywhere.

Press Freedom's Dark Horizon — new #fotp2017 report via @FreedomHouseDC freedomofthepressfh.org
Demonstrators in Warsaw protest government plan to restrict journalists’ work in the Poland’s parliament building. (Photo by NuPhoto/Getty)

 

https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/freedom-press-2017

 

Global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016 amid unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies and new moves by authoritarian states to control the media, including beyond their borders.

Only 13 percent of the world’s population enjoys a Free press—that is, a media environment where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.

Forty-five percent of the population lives in countries where the media environment is Not Free. The world’s 10 worst-rated countries and territories were Azerbaijan, Crimea, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Politicians in democracies such as Poland and Hungary shaped news coverage by undermining traditional media outlets, exerting their influence over public broadcasters, and raising the profile of friendly private outlets.

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