NGO: Freedom of the press at lowest point in 13 years

Protestors hold signs reading 'Free Deniz' during a solidarity protest for the jailed German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel. Dresden, 2 March. [Filip Singer/EPA]

With populism and authoritarianism on the rise in many countries, global press freedom has taken a blow. In fact, it is at its lowest point in 13 years, according to a US-funded research and advocacy organisation.

Freedom House published it’s annual Freedom of the Press report today (28 April). The report details an assessment of press freedoms in every country around the world.

Media outlets in the United States, for example, have continuously felt the brunt of the loss of freedom following the election of media-sceptic Donald Trump.

“President Donald Trump has shown contempt for the media and an apparent disregard for the country’s press freedom traditions, but it remains unclear whether the administration’s actions will critically undermine the work of journalists,” the report said.

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The report added that Trump has disparaged the press by rejecting the news media’s role in holding governments accountable for their words and actions.

“When politicians in the United States lambaste the media, it encourages their counterparts abroad to do the same. Vitriolic attacks on individual journalists and news outlets in the United States undermine our democracy’s status as a model of press freedom,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House.

According to the report, countries in and around Europe have also seen a decline in the media’s freedom.

The conservative government in Hungary began consolidating control over the media in 2010, and the subsequent sale of Népszabadság, one of Hungary’s oldest and most prominent newspapers, in 2016 demonstrated the government’s determination to silence any critical outlets.

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Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić spent much of his campaign to paint critical media outlets in a negative light. He insisted that journalists had ties to the mafia, or were in collusion with foreign intelligence agencies.

Some of the steepest declines on the report’s 100 point scale occurred in Poland, Turkey, and Hungary. The deterioration in Hungary and Turkey has been in motion for several years, but the sharp drop in Poland is a new and alarming development, the report said.

The conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) government in Poland boycotted critical media and seized control of the public broadcaster. State-owned companies in Poland redirected their advertising money to government-friendly media outlets.

Some countries in Eastern Europe saw negative declines in their score, but not by much.

Freedom House’s scale goes from 0-100, with 100 being the worst. Bulgaria scored 40 in 2016, but landed a 42 this year. Similarly, Serbia scored 45 last year and ended with 49 this year.

Albania and the Czech Republic maintained their same scores of 51 and 21.

“The fierce attacks we have seen on factual reporting pose a danger to freedom of the press around the world,” Abramowitz added.

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Russia is no exception to this danger. According to the report, Kremlin-controlled outlets that spread false information and undermine the legitimacy of Ukrainian institutions has caused the government in Kyiv to limit access to many Russian outlets— and deny entry to dozens of Russian journalists.

Additionally, at one of Russia’s last independent media groups, RBC, three editors were replaced by recruits from the state-owned TASS news agency after reporting on allegations of corruption involving the family and associates of President Putin, the report said.

Ukraine saw democratic gains this year that bolstered media freedom, but restrictions on Russian outlets in an attempt to foster “patriotic” reporting raised questions about the government’s commitment to independent media, the report said.

But it wasn’t all bad news this year.

Governments in Afghanistan, Argentina, Panama and Sri Lanka made efforts to improve media environments that had suffered under their predecessors.

Still, the report noted that the practical effects of many of these improvements remain to be seen.