Faced with arrests and censorship by governments, kidnapped and murdered by terrorists and other non-state forces and sometimes compelled to report falsehoods by wealthy owners of private media, journalists face a more worrisome future
With these words, Jennifer Dunham, Project Manager, Freedom House and Co-author, Freedom of the Press 2015, the latest edition of an annual report published by Freedom House since 1980, last week set the tone for discussions around this year’s commemoration of the World Press Freedom Day.
While presenting the report at the Newseum, Time Warner World News Gallery, Washington DC, last week, Dunham said “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 lives.”
The report 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 report said.
The report also showed that while there were positive developments in some countries within the period under review, the dominant global trend was negative.
Dunham said within the period under review, “governments employed tactics including arrests and censorship to silence criticisms. Terrorists and other non-state forces kidnapped and murdered journalists attempting to cover armed conflicts and organised 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 House, publishers of the report, said 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.
The Freedom of the Press report assesses the degree of media freedom in 199 countries and territories around the world, analysing the events and developments of each calendar year. Each country and territory receives a numerical score that ranges from 0 (the most free) to 100 (the least free), which serves as the basis for a status designation of Free, Partly Free or Not Free as the case may be.
In the 2015 report, Nigeria was rated as “partly free.” Nigeria apparently got that rating for among other reasons, the activities of the Boko Haram sect in the Northeastern region of the country. The report said, “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 north eastern Nigeria where Boko Haram is active, much of conflict-racked Libya and Egypt’s restive Sinai peninsula.”
The report also stated that, “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 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 organisations like the New York Times.”
The report also identified the impact of the Ebola Virus Disease outbreak on journalists and the practice of their profession in West Africa within the period under review. It explained how the Ebola epidemic in West Africa resulted in several restrictions on press freedom in 2014. “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.”
For instance, the report said sometime in August 2014, in Liberia, a reporter for FrontPage Africa was arrested while covering a protest against the state of emergency imposed by the government. “In October, the government limited media access to healthcare 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.”
The Freedom of the Press report 2015 said 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,” the report added.
The report also identified the world’s 10 worst rated countries and territories with scores of between 90 and 100 points to be Belarus, Crimea, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. “In these settings, independent media are either non-existent 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,” the report said.
Commenting on the report, Bob Casey, a Democrat Senator representing Pennsylvania in the U.S. Congress said Iran for instance, has continued 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.
Casey said unfettered access to information has a direct impact on people’s lives and it is a central pillar of any free society. This is why he said the U.S. Congress would continue to put pressure on the Barack Obama-led administration to ensure that matters like press freedom occupy front burner positions in the U.S. foreign affairs policies and diplomacy.
Such an approach as far as Mark Lagon, President of the Freedom House is concerned is indeed very important. “The wide and growing range of threats to media freedom around the globe presents a stark challenge to democratic values. Responding to this challenge requires a collective acknowledgement that all infringements on media freedom…limit the marketplace of ideas that lies at the core of a free and democratic society,” he said.