Harsh Laws and Violence Drive Global Decline | Freedom House

Harsh Laws and Violence Drive Global Decline

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By Jennifer Dunham, Bret Nelson, and Elen Aghekyan

Conditions for the media deteriorated sharply in 2014, as journalists around the world faced mounting restrictions on the free flow of news and information—including grave threats to their own lives. 

Governments employed tactics including arrests and censorship to silence criticism. Terrorists and other non-state forces kidnapped and murdered journalists attempting to cover armed conflicts and organized crime. The wealthy owners who dominate private media in a growing number of countries shaped news coverage to support the government, a political party, or their own interests. And democratic states struggled to cope with an onslaught of propaganda from authoritarian regimes and militant groups.

Freedom of the Press 2015, the latest edition of an annual report published by Freedom House since 1980, found that global press freedom declined in 2014 to its lowest point in more than 10 years. The rate of decline also accelerated drastically, with the global average score suffering its largest one-year drop in a decade. The share of the world’s population that enjoys a Free press stood at 14 percent, meaning only one in seven people live in countries 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.

The steepest declines worldwide relate to two factors: the passage and use of restrictive laws against the press—often on national security grounds—and the ability of local and foreign journalists to physically access and report freely from a given country, including protest sites and conflict areas. Paradoxically, in a time of seemingly unlimited access to information and new methods of content delivery, more and more areas of the world are becoming virtually inaccessible to journalists.

While there were positive developments in some countries, the dominant global trend was negative. The number of countries with significant improvements (8) was the lowest since 2009, while the number with significant declines (18) was the highest in 7 years.  The 18 countries and territories that declined represented a politically diverse cross-section—including Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Serbia, and South Africa—indicating that the global deterioration in press freedom is not limited to autocracies or war zones. Also featured among the major backsliders were Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Honduras, Libya, South Sudan, and Thailand.

The nature of major changes over the past five years is also striking. Since 2010, the most significant score improvements have occurred in countries where the media environment had been among the worst in the world. Tunisia, with a gain of 37 points, not only registered the biggest improvement over this period, but was also the only country with large gains that maintained a positive trajectory in 2014. While Myanmar and Libya have each earned net improvements of 21 points, both suffered score declines in the past year and remain in the Not Free category. In a disturbing trend, several countries with histories of more democratic practices have experienced serious deterioration. Greece has fallen by 21 points since 2010, as existing structural problems were exacerbated by the economic crisis and related political pressures. Large five-year drops were also recorded in Thailand (13 points), Ecuador (12), Turkey (11), Hong Kong (9), Honduras (7), Hungary (7), and Serbia (7).

In 2014, influential authoritarian powers such as China and Russia maintained a tight grip on locally based print and broadcast media, while also seeking to control the more independent views provided either online or by foreign news sources. Beijing and Moscow in particular were more overt in their efforts to manipulate the information environment in regions that they considered to be within their sphere of influence: Hong Kong and Taiwan for the former, and Ukraine, Central Asia, and the Baltics for the latter.

The year’s notable improvements included three status changes, with Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, and Ukraine moving from Not Free to Partly Free. Tunisia maintained its reputation as the success story of the Arab Spring, improving another 5 points in 2014. However, other countries recording gains either made modest, tentative improvements in the wake of civil strife—as in Central African Republic and Somalia—or featured authoritarian governments that have grown more secure and less violently oppressive in recent years, as in Zimbabwe.

Increased use of restrictive laws

Several countries in 2014 passed security or secrecy laws that established new limits on speech and reporting. After a coup in May, Thailand’s military government suspended the constitution, imposed martial law, shut down media outlets, blocked websites, and severely restricted content. Aggressive enforcement of the country’s lèse-majesté laws also continued in 2014, and after the coup alleged violators were tried in military courts.

In Turkey, the government repeatedly sought to expand the telecommunications authority’s power to block websites without a court order, though some of the more aggressive legal changes were struck down by the Constitutional Court. Other legislation gave the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) vast powers of surveillance and unfettered access to virtually any information held by any entity in the country. The amendments also criminalized reporting on or acquiring information about MIT.

A Russian law that took effect in August placed new controls on blogs and social media, requiring all sites with more than 3,000 visitors a day to register with the state telecommunications agency as media outlets. This status made them responsible for the accuracy of posted information, among other obligations. 

Detentions and closures under existing security or emergency laws also increased in 2014. Azerbaijan was one of the worst offenders, with nine journalists in prison as of December 1. Over the course of that month, the authorities detained prominent investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova of U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), raided and closed RFE/RL’s offices in the country, and interrogated the service’s local employees. A number of well-known media advocacy groups were also forced to close during the year.

In Egypt, a court sentenced three Al-Jazeera journalists to seven or more years in prison on charges of conspiring with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood to publish false news. The convictions followed a farcical trial in which prosecutors presented no credible evidence. While all three were freed or released on bail in early 2015, at least nine journalists remain in jail on terrorism charges or for covering the Brotherhood.

Ethiopia’s government stepped up its campaign against free expression in April 2014 by arresting six people associated with the Zone 9 blogging collective and three other journalists. In July, they were charged with inciting violence and terrorism. Myanmar, which had taken several positive steps in recent years, suffered declines in 2014 due in part to an increase in arrests and convictions of journalists. In July, four reporters and the chief executive of the Unity Weekly News were sentenced to 10 years in prison and hard labor, later reduced to seven years, under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act for reporting on a possible chemical weapons facility.

Such restrictive laws are not only utilized in authoritarian environments. Mexico’s new telecommunications law drew widespread objections from press freedom advocates due to provisions allowing the government to monitor and shut down real-time blogging and posting during social protests. South African authorities expanded their use of the apartheid-era National Key Points Act to prevent investigative journalists from reporting on important sites or institutions, particularly when probing corruption by political figures. In South Korea, President Park Geun-hye’s administration increasingly relied on the National Security Law to suppress critical reports, especially regarding the president’s inner circle and the Sewol ferry disaster.

Physical violence and inaccessible areas

The world’s growing number of areas that are effectively off limits for journalists include parts of Syria and Iraq controlled by Islamic State (IS) extremists, states in northeastern Nigeria where Boko Haram is active, much of conflict-racked Libya, and Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula. In Mexico, Honduras, and other Central American countries, intimidation and violence against journalists continued to soar during the year, as gangs and local authorities sought to deter reporting on organized crime and corruption in their territory. 

Seventeen journalists were killed in Syria alone in 2014, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The death toll, coupled with the high-profile murders of American freelance journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by IS militants, served as a stark reminder that local reporters—who make up the vast majority of the casualties—and freelancers do not have the extensive security safeguards afforded to full-time staff at large news organizations like the New York Times. To help address the problem, major outlets and advocacy groups established global safety principles and practices in early 2015.

While some parts of the world are rendered inaccessible mostly by chaotic violence, others are deliberately barred to most reporters by repressive governments. Prime examples include China’s Tibet and Xinjiang regions, Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, Russian-occupied Crimea, and certain ethnic minority areas in Myanmar. Citizen journalists, activists, and ordinary residents have managed to disseminate some information about conditions in these regions, but it is no substitute for unfettered reporting by professionals, and it is often easier to send news to the outside world than to reach audiences within the affected area. 

Street protests, though less deadly than armed conflicts, frequently proved dangerous for reporters to cover in 2014. During the prodemocracy demonstrations that broke out in Hong Kong in September, journalists faced a sharp rise in violence, including multiple assaults on reporters near protest sites. In Venezuela, journalists became targets during clashes linked to the widespread social protests that swept the country in the first half of the year. Reporters in Brazil also encountered violence at protests before and during the World Cup; in February, a cameraman died after being hit in the head with an explosive. In Ukraine, in addition to four journalist deaths and other violence associated with the separatist conflict in the east, one journalist was killed and at least 27 others were injured at the height of confrontations between protesters and police in the capital in February.

Pressure through ownership

In Russia and Venezuela, the media sector is increasingly owned by the state, private-sector cronies of the political leadership, or business interests that “depoliticize” their outlets by suppressing content that is critical of the government. In July, Venezuela’s oldest independent daily, El Universal, was sold to new owners. The move came on the heels of ownership changes at two other major private media companies in the country, Cadena Capriles and Globovisión. In all three cases, respected reporters have left or been suspended since the ownership changes, primarily due to shifts in the editorial line that affected news coverage.

While somewhat more media diversity exists in countries like Turkey and Ecuador, political leaders have steadily tamed once-independent outlets, using various forms of pressure against private owners and creating media sectors that are firmly tilted in the ruling party’s favor.

In Greece, the new public broadcaster has faced allegations of political interference in hiring and editorial content. Hungary remained a country of concern in 2014, as the administration of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán continued to exert pressure on media owners to influence coverage. Dozens of media workers protested the dismissal of the editor in chief of Origo, a news website, after it published an article on alleged misuse of state funds.

Increased use of propaganda by states and nonstate actors

Among the most troubling trends identified in 2014 was the more active and aggressive use of propaganda—often false or openly threatening—to warp the media environment and crowd out authentic journalism.

This phenomenon was especially pronounced in Russia, where state-controlled national television stations broadcast nonstop campaigns of demonization directed at the internal opposition, neighboring countries whose policies have displeased Moscow, and the broader democratic world. Russian media played a major role in preparing the Russian public for war with Ukraine. As Dmitriy Kiselyov, head of the Kremlin’s international news enterprise, asserted in April 2014, “Information wars have already become standard practice and the main type of warfare. The bombers are now sent in after the information campaign.” 

Neighboring countries have grappled with the problem of Russian propaganda, in some cases resorting to censorship. Ukrainian authorities, facing a military invasion, suspended the retransmission of at least 15 Russian television channels by cable operators. Authorities in Lithuania, Latvia, and Moldova—whose breakaway territory of Transnistria is supported by Moscow—imposed suspensions or fines on some Russian stations for reasons including incitement to war, disseminating historical inaccuracy, and lack of pluralism of opinions in news content. The government of Estonia did not follow suit, instead approving the creation of a Russian-language public channel, set to launch in 2015, as a means of countering Kremlin disinformation with honest reporting. Latvia and Lithuania also signaled plans to expand Russian-language public programming.

Like the Kremlin, China’s Communist Party leaders used state-controlled media to propagate official views and vilify their perceived enemies. State outlets trumpeted the persona and slogans of President Xi Jinping while airing televised confessions and “self-criticisms” by detained journalists, with both phenomena drawing comparisons to the Mao era. To ensure that all media toed the line, the party’s propaganda department issued almost daily directives ordering news outlets and websites to use only information from the official Xinhua News Agency for coverage of breaking developments.

Propaganda is not used exclusively by national governments. Militant groups including IS have established sophisticated media operations with potential audiences around the world, taking advantage of popular social-media tools and even satellite television. Democratic governments have been hard pressed to combat messages that openly advocate violence without restricting privacy, freedom of expression, and access to information for their citizens.

Other Notable Developments in 2014

In addition to those described above, four major phenomena stood out during the year:

  • Hostile conditions for women journalists: Women journalists operated in an increasingly hostile environment in 2014, and the rapid expansion of Twitter and other social media as important tools for journalism has created new venues for harassment. This intimidation has proliferated and threatens to silence women’s reporting on crucial topics including corruption, politics, and crime. Although journalists covering such topics have always been vulnerable, women now encounter particularly vicious and gender-specific attacks, ranging from smears and insults to graphic threats of sexual violence and the circulation of personal information. Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman described the wave of intimidation she has faced in recent years as a “public lynching.”
  • The impact of the Ebola crisis: The Ebola epidemic in West Africa resulted in several restrictions on press freedom in 2014, although the three worst-affected countries each handled the crisis differently. In Liberia, emergency laws, shutdowns and suspensions of media outlets, and bans on coverage—ostensibly designed to avoid the spread of panic and misinformation—prevented the population from accessing critical information and aimed to hide the shortcomings of the government’s response. In August, a reporter for FrontPage Africa was arrested while covering a protest against the state of emergency. In October, the government limited media access to health care facilities, requiring journalists to obtain explicit permission from the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare before conducting interviews or using recording equipment on clinic or hospital grounds. Sierra Leone imposed less onerous restrictions on the press, but nevertheless used emergency laws to arrest and detain journalists for critical reporting. In Guinea, a journalist and two other media workers were killed by local residents as they attempted to report on the crisis in a remote town, but the government did not unduly constrain the activities of the press during the year.
  • Deterioration in the Balkans: A number of countries in the Western Balkans continued to exhibit a worrying pattern of press freedom violations in 2014. These media environments feature several common problems: the use of defamation and insult laws by politicians and business people to suppress critical reporting; pro-government bias at public broadcasters; editorial pressure from political leaders and private owners that leads to self-censorship; harassment, threats, and attacks on journalists that go unpunished; and opaque ownership structures. Macedonia’s score has declined 10 points in the past five years, making it the worst performer in the region. Several opposition-oriented outlets have been forced to close during this period, and journalist Tomislav Kezarovski remained in detention throughout 2014 on questionable charges that he revealed the identity of a protected witness in a murder case. In Serbia during the year, the administration of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić sought to curb reporting on floods that hit the country in May and directed increasingly hostile rhetoric and harassment at independent journalists; such pressure allegedly motivated broadcasters to cancel major political talk shows. Conditions in Montenegro have deteriorated since Milo Đukanović returned to the premiership in 2012, with independent outlets such as Vjesti, Dan, and the Monitor suffering lawsuits, unprosecuted physical attacks, and hostile government rhetoric.
  • Persistent concerns in the United States: The United States’ score fell by one point, to 22, due to detentions, harassment, and rough treatment of journalists by police during protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Meanwhile, press freedom advocates remained concerned about certain practices and policies of the federal government, including the Obama administration’s relatively rigid controls on the information coming out of the White House and government agencies. Although the U.S. Justice Department said in December that it would no longer seek to compel New York Times journalist James Risen to reveal a source in a long-running case, the Obama administration has used the 1917 Espionage Act to prosecute alleged leaks of classified information eight times, more than all previous administrations combined. Revelations of surveillance that included the bulk collection of communications data by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the targeted wiretapping of media outlets continued to reverberate in 2014, as fears of monitoring and the aggressive prosecution of alleged leakers made journalists’ interactions with administration officials and potential sources more difficult.

The Global Picture in 2014

Of the 199 countries and territories assessed for 2014 (two new territory reports, Crimea and Somaliland, were added), a total of 63 (32 percent) were rated Free, 71 (36 percent) were rated Partly Free, and 65 (32 percent) were rated Not Free. This balance marks a shift toward the Partly Free category compared with the edition covering 2013, which featured 63 Free, 68 Partly Free, and 66 Not Free countries and territories.

The report found that 14 percent of the world’s inhabitants lived in countries with a Free press, while 42 percent had a Partly Free press and 44 percent lived in Not Free environments. The population figures are significantly affected by two countries—China, with a Not Free status, and India, with a Partly Free status—that together account for over a third of the world’s more than seven billion people. The percentage of those enjoying a Free media in 2014 remained at its lowest level since 1996, when Freedom House began incorporating population data into the findings of the report.

After a multiyear decline in the global average score that was interrupted by an improvement in 2011, there was a further decline of 0.74 points for 2014, bringing the figure to its lowest level since 1999 and marking the greatest year-on-year decline since 2005. All regions except sub-Saharan Africa, whose average score improved slightly, experienced declines of varying degrees, with the Middle East and North Africa showing the largest net decline. In terms of thematic categories, the drop in the global average score was driven primarily by decline in the legal score, followed by the political score; the economic score showed the smallest amount of slippage.

Worst of the Worst 

The world’s 10 worst-rated countries and territories, with scores of between 90 and 100 points, were Belarus, Crimea, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Crimea—analyzed separately for the first time in the current edition—and Syria joined the bottom-ranked cohort in 2014. In these settings, independent media are either nonexistent or barely able to operate, the press acts as a mouthpiece for the regime, citizens’ access to unbiased information is severely limited, and dissent is crushed through imprisonment, torture, and other forms of repression. Crimea became subject to Russian press laws after its occupation and annexation in early 2014, and its media faced restrictive regulations and widespread violence. Iran continues to earn its place among the Worst of the Worst as one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists, including Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, who has been detained without charge since July 2014. 

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