11 June 2019

Freedom and the Media: A Downward Spiral

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.

Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary and Aleksandar Vučić’s administration in Serbia have had great success in snuffing out critical journalism, blazing a trail for populist forces elsewhere. Both leaders have consolidated media ownership in the hands of their cronies, ensuring that the outlets with the widest reach support the government and smear its perceived opponents. In Hungary, where the process has advanced much further, nearly 80 percent of the media are owned by government allies. *

Cultivation of progovernment media is spreading to neighboring states. The leader of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, until recently part of that country’s ruling coalition, was caught on video attempting to collude with Russians to purchase the largest national newspaper and infuse its coverage with partisan bias. Score declines linked to economic manipulation of media—including cases in which the government directs advertising to friendly outlets or encourages business allies to buy those that are critical—were more common across Europe over the past five years than in other parts of the world. Such tactics of influence and interference are a relatively recent phenomenon on the continent, which has generally displayed strong support for press freedom since the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago.

In Israel, one of the few democracies in the Middle East, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly excoriated investigative reporters and now faces corruption charges for allegedly offering regulatory favors to two major media firms in exchange for positive coverage. Although Netanyahu has resisted efforts to formally indict and try him on these charges, the evidence suggests that the prime minister was willing to sacrifice press freedom in order to maintain political power. Many voters apparently accepted this tradeoff in the April 2019 elections, putting Netanyahu’s party and its allies in a position to form a new ruling coalition.

India, the world’s most populous democracy, is also sending signals that holding the government accountable is not part of the press’s responsibility. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has supported campaigns to discourage speech that is “antinational,” and government-aligned thugs have raided critical journalists’ homes and offices. The media have become widely flattering of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who won reelection last month, amid allegations that the government issues directives on how the press should cover his activities and intimidates journalists who push back. The government has also been selective in the allocation of television licenses, effectively excluding unfriendly outlets from the airwaves.

In perhaps the most concerning development of recent years, press freedom has come under unusual pressure in the United States, the world’s leading democratic power. Although key news organizations remain strong and continue to produce vigorous reporting on those in office, President Donald Trump’s continual vilification of the press has seriously exacerbated an ongoing erosion of public confidence in the mainstream media. Among other steps, the president has repeatedly threatened to strengthen libel laws, revoke the licenses of certain broadcasters, and damage media owners’ other business interests. The US constitution provides robust protections against such actions, but President Trump’s public stance on press freedom has had a tangible impact on the global landscape. Journalists around the world now have less reason to believe that Washington will come to their aid if their basic rights are violated.
Fueling a global decline

The breakdown of global press freedom is closely related to the broader decline of democracy that Freedom House has tracked for the past 13 years. Although the press is not always the first institution to be attacked when a country’s leadership takes an antidemocratic turn, repression of free media is a strong indication that other political rights and civil liberties are in danger. Assaults on media independence are frequently associated with power grabs by new or incumbent leaders, or with entrenched regimes’ attempts to crush perceived threats to their control.

Over the past five years, countries that were already designated as Not Free in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report were also those most likely to suffer a decline in their press freedom scores, with 28 percent of Not Free countries experiencing such a drop. Partly Free countries were almost equally likely to experience a gain as a decline in press freedom, reflecting the volatility of these middle performers and the complex forces influencing their trajectory. The worsening records of Not Free states, combined with the negative trend among Free countries, have driven the overall decline in global press freedom.

While populist leaders in democracies seek to secure and build on their gains by taming the press, established autocratic governments continue to tighten the screws on dissenting voices, as any breach in their media dominance threatens to expose official wrongdoing or debunk official narratives. In Russia in 2018, authorities moved to block the popular messaging application Telegram after the company refused to hand over its encryption keys to security officials. The government in Cameroon shut down internet service in the restive Anglophone region for most of last year, a heavy-handed reaction to protests and a nascent insurgency stemming from long-standing discrimination against the large Anglophone minority. In Myanmar, two Reuters journalists were sentenced to seven years in prison after a flawed trial in which the court ignored plain evidence that they had been entrapped to halt their investigation of military atrocities against the Rohingya minority; although they were recently pardoned, they were not exonerated.

The downgrades in various countries can be attributed to a range of legal, political, and economic factors, but some stand out as more concerning and pervasive. Violence and harassment aimed at particular journalists and media outlets have played some role in 63 percent of the countries with a press freedom score reduction over the past five years. The 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi was the most infamous recent case, but it was hardly unique. Journalists in El Salvador received death threats in 2015 after they uncovered stories of police abuse and extrajudicial killings. A Malian journalist who was outspoken about rampant political corruption was shot in the chest in 2017. Also that year, a Tanzanian journalist investigating the murders of local officials disappeared, and his fate remains a mystery.

Trends in press freedom differ by region. Since 2014, there has been no net change in the average press freedom score for the Americas or Asia-Pacific, and sub-Saharan Africa has seen a slight increase of 3 percent. But the average scores in the two least free regions of the world, Eurasia and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), declined by 9 percent and 11 percent, respectively, while press freedom in Europe—where four out of every five countries are Free—dropped by 8 percent.

In Eurasia and MENA, the media in the past year have faced an intensification of traditional challenges. Examples include new legislative restrictions in Belarus, further arrests and convictions in Lebanon, and heightened insecurity and fatalities in war-torn Yemen. These developments illustrate the ways in which already difficult environments can grow steadily worse in the absence of meaningful international support for media independence and other fundamental rights.

Even in the regions where average scores were more stable, press freedom has come under threat in individual countries. A new privacy law in Nepal restricts collection of the personal information of any individual, including public officials, exploiting legitimate concerns about privacy to suppress media scrutiny of political leaders’ conflicts of interest or corruption. In Pakistan, security agents have allegedly warned journalists against coverage of taboo subjects, such as abuses by the military, or given reporters instructions on how to cover specific political issues. The regime in China has worked to close off the last remaining avenues for accessing uncensored information by increasing pressure on private technology companies to police the content on their platforms more assiduously.
Guiding lights in the darkness

The picture of global press freedom is not entirely bleak. The most encouraging examples of democratic progress over the past two years—Ethiopia, Malaysia, Armenia, Ecuador, and The Gambia—have nearly all featured parallel gains in their media environments. Among these five countries, only Armenia failed to register an improvement in its press freedom score in the same year as its initial political opening in Freedom in the World. This correlation underscores once again the close relationship between media freedom and political change: Just as antidemocratic power grabs often involve attacks on independent media, a reformist leadership is defined in part by its willingness to accept criticism from a free press. And just as restrictions on media freedom frequently precede the erosion of other rights, the removal of such restrictions facilitates and catalyzes further democratic advancements.

The improvements in these countries also point to the resilience of independent journalism, even after years of repression. In Malaysia and Ecuador, the lifting of political pressure on the media allowed independent outlets to rebound from censorship and previously progovernment outlets to produce less obsequious coverage. In Ethiopia, outlets that had been operating from abroad were able to return to the country. In The Gambia, persecuted journalists returned from exile, and more locals have decided to enter the profession.

Media freedom can recover much more quickly after a period of authoritarian governance than some other elements of democracy, such as the rule of law. But it is also subject to rapid reversals. The Arab Spring provides a cautionary tale. Soon after the 2011 uprisings, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya all recorded improvements in press freedom in Freedom in the World. All have since faced setbacks. Like democracy itself, press freedom is not an end state that remains secure once it is achieved—it must be nurtured and defended against the forces that oppose it.

The media and democracy

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. A free and independent media sector that can keep the population informed and hold leaders to account is as crucial for a strong and sustainable democracy as free and fair elections. Without it, citizens cannot make informed decisions about how they are ruled, and abuse of power, which is all but inevitable in any society, cannot be exposed and corrected.

A review of some of the countries that have faced potential turning points in the last year illustrates how the media’s ability to support democracy depends on their freedom to operate independently.

Journalists played a key role in the April 2019 ouster of authoritarian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria, not only by reporting on antigovernment protests but also by staging their own demonstrations when major news outlets failed to give due attention to the popular movement. However, the frequent arrests of critical journalists that took place under Bouteflika have continued since his resignation, an indication that the unfolding leadership transition may be less revolutionary than many have hoped.

Before Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir was removed from office, also in April, the population was accustomed to domestic news outlets that failed to provide unbiased and substantive information. Citizen journalists and exile-based outlets filled the gap, disseminating news and images largely via the internet. As frustration with al-Bashir’s misrule grew throughout the winter and he perceived the extent of the threat to his power, his regime cracked down, arresting journalists who covered mass protests and revoking the credentials of some foreign reporters. As in Algeria, journalists staged their own protests. Military commanders attempted to placate the public after al-Bashir’s arrest, announcing the end of media censorship and tacitly acknowledging that a perception of increased press freedom would help consolidate their control. But journalists are skeptical of such declarations by the junta, and they have joined other protesters in pressing for a transfer of power to civilian leaders who can oversee a genuine democratic opening.

In Venezuela, media repression has increased since the opposition-controlled National Assembly designated Juan Guaidó as acting president in January. Combined with repeated electricity blackouts, this pressure from the authoritarian regime of Nicolás Maduro has severely hampered efforts by media outlets in the country to inform the public about political events and the ongoing humanitarian crisis. But a handful of resilient journalists have continued to disseminate news through social media, the internet, and international partners. One reporting group has developed technology to record video with low bandwidth on mobile devices and then automatically delete it after transfer to a secure server, reducing the risk of reprisals against journalists who are detained and searched. Journalists’ ability to document opposition activities as well as the brutality of the regime response has helped to galvanize international support for the democracy movement.

In order to address the information gap on the ground in Venezuela, some media outlets have also forged direct relationships with subsets of the population. Journalists enter communities that have had limited access to objective news under Maduro and report on local stories. This fosters public trust and makes residents more receptive to other impartial news. Despite these valiant efforts, however, the production of reliable, objective news that is accessible to Venezuelans remains a daunting challenge.

Armenia has made far more progress in its democratic transition in the past year, with protests leading to fresh elections and a new, reformist government. As in Sudan, most television channels initially avoided covering the mass demonstrations. But a small contingent of independent outlets, including Civilnet and Azatutyun, was able to provide steady in-depth reporting, including live streams and skillful use of social media. The information flow helped the popular movement to gain momentum, increasing pressure on establishment forces and legitimizing the rising new leadership. These outlets also helped stem disinformation spread by the former regime.

There is an obvious tension between journalists who are attempting to perform their proper democratic function and antidemocratic regimes that are determined to retain power. The innovative and courageous work of independent reporters offers hope that even in the most desperate circumstances, those who are committed to distributing information in the public interest can find a way. But these journalists alone cannot address the needs of billions of people who still have access to little more than their government’s narrative and must rely on their own instincts and observations to assess the claims of corrupt and abusive leaders.
Further analysis

This essay is the first in a series of four on the links between media freedom and democracy.

In “The Implications for Democracy of China’s Globalizing Media Influence,” Sarah Cook looks at the ways in which the Chinese Communist Party is expanding its overseas influence operations through involvement in news reporting, content dissemination, public debate, and in some cases electoral politics outside China. Even in settings where Beijing has not yet attempted to undermine free expression and access to information, the groundwork is being laid for future interference, with insidious implications for democracy.

In “The Illiberal Toolbox for Co-opting the Media,” Zselyke Csaky analyzes the toolbox that democratically elected but illiberal leaders use to co-opt the media. She examines the legal, extralegal, and economic tactics deployed in Serbia and Hungary, both of which declined to Partly Free in Freedom in the World this year. The essay also describes the conditions that make media environments vulnerable to illiberal co-optation.

In “Why Social Media Are Still Worth Saving,” Adrian Shahbaz writes about the extent to which major technology platforms such as Google and Facebook have disrupted the online media ecosystem, for better and worse, around the globe. The essay analyzes how authoritarians and propagandists manipulate digital media to undermine democracy, and proposes a new partnership between tech companies and news media to support high-quality journalism.

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.

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