Governments are finding new ways to limit press freedom, reports show

MSF press briefing.

The state of press freedom is getting worse, say two organizations that advocate for journalists, regardless of whether journalists are working in repressive regimes or democratic countries.

Governments around the world are finding new ways to censor and suppress journalism, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) warned in its analysis of attacks on the media. The findings are similar to the newly released press freedom index, published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Both reports sound the alarm over the situation in democratic countries. The decline of press freedom within democracies started years ago and continued through 2016. The press freedom rankings for the U.S. and U.K. both fell by two places. RSF blames the “highly toxic anti-media discourse” fueled by comments from high-level officials as the reason for the decline in the two countries.

“The obsession with surveillance and violations of the right to the confidentiality of sources have contributed to the continuing decline of many countries previously regarded as virtuous,” the report stated.

There are also the daily battles between the Trump administration and the White House press corps. Many of the stories written in the 100 days since Trump’s inauguration reflect the combative relationship – focusing on attacks leveled by Press Secretary Sean Spicer and debates with Trump. But that is a small part of a global problem.

“Following the polarizing election of Donald Trump in the United States, concerns were raised about the rise of fake news and the hostile and intimidating environment created by Trump’s heated rhetoric,” Committee to Protect Journalists Executive Director Joel Simon wrote in the report’s introduction. “But around the world the trends are deeper, more enduring, and more troubling.”

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Attacks on journalists are increasingly deadly. The number of journalists killed in the past five years is greater than any five-year period in nearly three decades, according to CPJ. In addition, more journalists were jailed, 259, in 2016 than in any year since 1990.

The world is witnessing what Simon called ‘repression 2.0.’ New technologies enable governments to “update on the worst old-style tactics,” he argued. Autocratic leaders like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan use the appearance of democracy to soften the perception of strict media controls. Erdoğan uses his office to shut down private media and regulate news sources to support the government.

Examples of these new tactics played out in the past week. The government of Ecuador leveled fines against seven news outlets for not publishing stories about allegations that opposition presidential candidate Guillermo Lasso evaded taxes. In Kashmir, government officials cut off services to social media sites including Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp in response to ongoing protests. And a blogger in the Maldives was stabbed to death in his apartment. Yameen Rasheed was well-known in the small country for writing satirical political commentary and received death threats prior to the attack.

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Countries in the European Union and Balkans continue to rank well with Norway landing the top spot on the press freedom index. The bright spot does not overcome the global downward trend. The overall ‘global indicator’ reached its highest level in the history of the index. Nearly two-thirds of countries measured experienced deteriorating press freedom in the past year.

Repression is high in countries like China, Sudan and Turkmenistan. Eritrea gave up its near decade-long hold as the lowest ranked country on the index to North Korea. Few journalists are able to operate in the most repressive countries preventing information from reaching citizens and a global audience.

The press groups both tried to strike an optimistic tone in the face of a troubling trend. Fewer journalist deaths in the Philippines and Colombia helped the countries improve their rankings on the index. Simon called on journalists to avoid feeling demoralized and remain committed to using reporting to fight back against censorship.

“It is important to keep in mind that the upsurge in violence and repression against the media, and the development of new strategies of repression, are responses to the liberating power of independent information,” he writes.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.