Press freedoms shrink globally

BY AMRIT DHILLON| IN Media Freedom | 06/12/2016
A new report says that press freedom has declined to its lowest point in 12 years and, this time, some European countries are in the dock.
AMRIT DHILLON presents its findings

Green stands for free, yelow for partly free, and blue for not free.

 

The countries where press freedom lessened last year go beyond the usual malefactors such as China, the Middle East, and large parts of Africa and Latin America, to include European nations who normally stand on high ground, above the disappointing defaulters, proudly holding aloft the standard of freedom.

A report by Freedom House, an independent watchdog in the US dedicated, as its website says, to the ‘expansion of freedom and democracy around the world’, says that press freedom declined to its lowest point in 12 years owing to political, criminal, and terrorist forces seeking to co-opt or silence the media in their struggle for power.

The curbing of press freedom by sundry authoritarian governments is a common enough phenomenon in most parts of the world but the Freedom of the Press 2016 report finds that the battle against terrorism has cast a shadow in parts of Europe with journalists facing pressure both from terrorist groups and from their own governments’ efforts to fight terrorism in the form of tighter surveillance laws,  populist measures, and curbs what can be said and shown about the police force – often justified in the name of striking a ‘balance’ between freedom and security.    

 

Spain, France, Australia, Britain, Poland….tightening the screws

For example, Spain passed a public security law in March 2015 imposing heavy financial penalties on any individuals at a protest, including journalists, who decline to identify themselves to authorities, fail to obey orders to disperse, or disseminate unauthorized images of law enforcement personnel. ‘The last point in particular threatens the work of photojournalists and others who seek to inform the public about police abuses,’ says the report.

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, the French government passed a bill giving sweeping surveillance powers to the authorities, leaving journalists and their data vulnerable to intrusive monitoring.

Britain, according to the report, is currently considering a bill that would require telecommunications companies to retain citizens’ browsing histories and communications data for possible use by the authorities.

And a bill passed in Australia in March 2015 requires telecom firms to store metadata on calls and messaging for two years. ‘Media advocates warn that such measures could be used to identify journalists’ sources and expose government whistle-blowers,’ says the report.

It adds: ‘In another worrisome development, some European political leaders focused their attention on editorial control over public broadcasters. One of the first moves of the new right-wing government in Poland was to pass legislation on December 31 that allows it to hire and fire the management of the state-owned media…this presages further pressure on journalistic independence in what had been one of Europe’s most successful new democracies.’

In fact, its conclusion on media freedom in Europe is bleak. ‘Over the past 10 years, Europe as a whole has suffered the largest drop in press freedom of any region in the Freedom of the Press report. This has been driven in part by weakened European economies and shrinking advertising revenues, which have led to layoffs, closure of outlets, and further concentration of media ownership. Other contributing factors include new laws restricting media activity, and increases in violence against and intimidation of journalists in retaliation for their reporting.’

 

In Canada too, deterioriation 

Even placid, inoffensive Canada gets short shrift, not in the Freedom of the Press report but in another report by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) which says that press freedom has deteriorated. In a letter written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last month, RSF complains that recent restrictions have caused  Canada to fall 10 places on RSF's World Press Freedom Index between 2015 and 2016, leaving it at 18th place out of 180 countries.

The letter pointed out that a TV journalist has been forced to hand over his communication with a source to the police; a journalist’s computer was seized; another journalist faced trespassing charges related to covering a protest over a dam; and several journalists have been the subject of police surveillance.

‘These incidents have led to what can only be described as a crisis for press freedom in Canada. RSF, along with journalists and media defence organizations both local and international, have expressed their deep concern for the recent deterioration of the respect for journalists' independence, the confidentiality of their sources, and their ability to freely do their job without fear of being surveilled, followed, or even arrested,’ wrote RSF.

Back to the Freedom of the Press report,Turkey attracts a special comment for taking advantage of real and perceived security threats following the abortive coup last July to crack down on the media.  “The authorities continued to use terrorism-related laws to arrest critical journalists, censor online outlets, and deport foreign correspondents - usually in connection with the Kurdish insurgency, the conflict in Syria, or the Gülen movement,’’ says the report.

 

Other key findings

  • Press freedom declined to its lowest point in 12 years in 2015;
  • Only 13 per cent of the world’s population enjoys a free press - that is, 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-one percent of the world’s population has a Partly Free press;
  • Forty six percent live in Not Free media environments.
  • Among the countries that suffered the largest declines in 2015 were Bangladesh, Turkey, Burundi, France, Serbia, Yemen, Egypt, Macedonia, and Zimbabwe.

 

“Steep declines worldwide were linked to two factors: heightened partisanship and polarization in a country’s media environment, and the degree of extra-legal intimidation and physical violence faced by journalists. These problems were most acute in the Middle East, where governments and militias increasingly pressured journalists and media outlets to take sides, creating a “with us or against us” climate and demonizing those who refused to be cowed,’ says the report.  

India ranked number 80 out of the 199 countries assessed. ‘Journalists have faced a wave of threats and physical attacks in recent months, particularly from right-wing groups, adding to doubts about press freedom under the current Hindu nationalist government,’ says the report.

The topics most likely to get journalists into trouble were: corruption; organised crime; environment and land development; disputed sovereignty; religion; and lese-majeste.

Under the last category, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, for example, have lengthy records of pursuing insult charges against journalists, bloggers, and social-media users.

‘In 2015, Turkish authorities went so far as to prosecute a doctor who, in an image shared online, compared the president to the character Gollum from the film series The Lord of the Rings. In a similarly absurd case in Thailand, a man was arrested on lèse-majesté charges for posting a humorous comment about the king’s dog online,’ says the report.

No guesses for the country at the bottom of the list…..yes, North Korea.

 

For the full report: https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/FH_FTOP_2016Report_Final_04232016.pdf  

 

 

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