Press Freedom – Global Assessment
Freedom and the Media: A Downward Spiral
Freedom House, June 2019
By Sarah Repucci, Senior Director for Research and Analysis
:: Freedom of the media has been deteriorating around the world over the past decade.
:: In some of the most influential democracies in the world, populist leaders have overseen concerted attempts to throttle the independence of the media sector.
:: While the threats to global media freedom are real and concerning in their own right, their impact on the state of democracy is what makes them truly dangerous.
:: Experience has shown, however, that press freedom can rebound from even lengthy stints of repression when given the opportunity. The basic desire for democratic liberties, including access to honest and fact-based journalism, can never be extinguished.
The fundamental right to seek and disseminate information through an independent press is under attack, and part of the assault has come from an unexpected source. Elected leaders in many democracies, who should be press freedom’s staunchest defenders, have made explicit attempts to silence critical media voices and strengthen outlets that serve up favorable coverage. The trend is linked to a global decline in democracy itself: The erosion of press freedom is both a symptom of and a contributor to the breakdown of other democratic institutions and principles, a fact that makes it especially alarming.
According to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World data, media freedom has been deteriorating around the world over the past decade, with new forms of repression taking hold in open societies and authoritarian states alike. The trend is most acute in Europe, previously a bastion of well-established freedoms, and in Eurasia and the Middle East, where many of the world’s worst dictatorships are concentrated. If democratic powers cease to support media independence at home and impose no consequences for its restriction abroad, the free press corps could be in danger of virtual extinction.
Experience has shown, however, that press freedom can rebound from even lengthy stints of repression when given the opportunity. The basic desire for democratic liberties, including access to honest and fact-based journalism, can never be extinguished, and it is never too late to renew the demand that these rights be granted in full.
Attacks on press freedom in democracies
In some of the most influential democracies in the world, large segments of the population are no longer receiving unbiased news and information. This is not because journalists are being thrown in jail, as might occur in authoritarian settings. Instead, the media have fallen prey to more nuanced efforts to throttle their independence. Common methods include government-backed ownership changes, regulatory and financial pressure, and public denunciations of honest journalists. Governments have also offered proactive support to friendly outlets through measures such as lucrative state contracts, favorable regulatory decisions, and preferential access to state information. The goal is to make the press serve those in power rather than the public.
The problem has arisen in tandem with right-wing populism, which has undermined basic freedoms in many democratic countries. Populist leaders present themselves as the defenders of an aggrieved majority against liberal elites and ethnic minorities whose loyalties they question, and argue that the interests of the nation—as they define it—should override democratic principles like press freedom, transparency, and open debate.
Among Free countries in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report, 19 percent (16 countries) have endured a reduction in their press freedom scores over the past five years. This is consistent with a key finding of Freedom in the World—that democracies in general are undergoing a decline in political rights and civil liberties. It has become painfully apparent that a free press can never be taken for granted, even when democratic rule has been in place for decades…
The following recommendations for policymakers in democratic nations will help ensure the sustainability of independent media worldwide:
:: Ensure that their actions do not excuse or inspire violations of press freedom. Democratic nations have a particularly important role to play in maintaining media freedom. Words matter, and when US officials verbally attack the press or fail to swiftly and vigorously condemn acts of repression such as Khashoggi’s murder, it sends a signal to undemocratic leaders around the world that assaults on the press and crimes against journalists are permissible.
:: Take strong and immediate action against any violations of media freedom globally through press statements, phone calls, meetings, letters, and the imposition of targeted sanctions on perpetrators. This includes speaking out against violence against journalists and authorities’ failure to identify and prosecute attackers, restrictions on media access, blocking of websites, and censorship on particular topics.
:: Stand up publicly for the value of a free press, and support civic education that will inform the next generation. Press freedom is one of the most fundamental pillars of American democracy, and constitutional protections in the United States are stronger than in any other country in the world. Citizens could easily forget this amid media mudslinging and incendiary commentary. Political leaders and teachers should reiterate the extent to which we all benefit from professional journalists who hold those in power to account.
:: Ensure that foreign policy and assistance prioritizes support for democratic principles, including media freedom, as the foundation of national security and economic prosperity. The goal of foreign assistance is to bring recipient countries to the point that they no longer need it. In that sense, it is shortsighted for donor governments to invest funding overseas without shoring up press freedom. National security and economic prosperity are strongest in nations where democratic rights are protected, and a free press is a key watchdog of democracy. Foreign aid specifically focused on bolstering independent media by providing technical training and emergency assistance is especially needed given the threats journalists currently face. Countries that have experienced recent expansions in press freedom, such as Angola, Ethiopia, Malaysia, and Ecuador, are particularly vulnerable to backsliding and require special focus.
:: Support social media as an alternative outlet for free expression in repressive environments. Innovative alternatives to state-controlled media regularly spring up on social media, including recently in Venezuela, Armenia, and Sudan. Related technology can be used to circumvent censorship and keep reporters anonymous where needed. Donor agencies should provide funding for technology that increases journalistic freedom.