By Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Karin Deutsch Karlekar is project director of Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the Press report. The views expressed are her own.
At first glance, it might seem counterintuitive that media freedom is on the decline. After all, in a world in which news is being produced by a broader range of professionals – as well as citizen journalists and bloggers – information is flowing at faster rates than ever before. And with news being transmitted through a greater variety of mediums – including newspapers, radio, television, the internet, mobile phones, flash drives, and social media – one might expect the level of media freedom worldwide to be improving, not worsening.
Yet Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the Press report, which measures the environment journalists operate within as well as access to news and information, shows that the world’s media are often facing growing pressures in a range of political settings. An overall decline in the level of global media freedom – reversing last year’s improvement – was driven by declines in almost every region of the world. Reasons for the deterioration included the continued, increasingly sophisticated repression of independent journalism and new media by authoritarian regimes; the ripple effects of the European economic crisis and longer-term challenges to the financial sustainability of print media; and ongoing threats from nonstate actors such as radical Islamists and organized crime groups.
The reality is that there remain substantial challenges to independent media in an array of repressive environments. Influential authoritarian states such as Russia and China, who have long used a variety of techniques to maintain a tight grip on the press – including detaining, jailing, or bringing legal charges against critics, as well as closing down or otherwise censoring media outlets – have also expanded their attempts to control content online. Russia, which adopted additional restrictions on internet content in 2012, set a negative tone for the rest of Eurasia, where conditions remained largely grim. In China, the installation of a new Communist Party leadership didn’t produce any immediate relaxation of constraints on either traditional media or the internet. In fact, the Chinese regime, which boasts the world’s most intricate and elaborate system of media repression, stepped up its drive to limit both old and new sources of information through arrests and censorship in the face of considerable pushback from bloggers and journalists.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East and North Africa, the dramatic openings seen as part of the Arab Spring revolutions showed signs of either stalling – or outright reversal. Tunisia and Libya, which have shown some of the most promising movement towards democracy, largely maintained post-revolution openings, but have seen little positive movement since 2011.
Egypt, for its part, experienced significant backsliding, and the region as a whole had a net decline for the year, with negative trends also apparent in the Gulf. The disheartening reversal there was driven by a constellation of factors, including officially tolerated campaigns to intimidate journalists, increased efforts to prosecute reporters and commentators for insulting the political leadership or defaming religion, and intensified polarization of the pro- and anti-Muslim Brotherhood press following the election of President Mohamed Morsy, which reduced the availability of balanced coverage.
The past year also brought a series of declines in both established and young democracies. Mali, which had been Africa’s freest media environment for a number of years, suffered the year’s largest decline in a decade due to media restrictions associated with a military coup and the capture of the northern half of the country by Islamist militants, which led to the closure of independent outlets and constraints on journalists’ ability to cover the news. Meanwhile, political unrest and financial pressures brought on by the European economic crisis took a toll on media freedom in several countries in Southern Europe, most notably Greece. Media suffered widespread staff cutbacks and some closures of press outlets, as well as heightened legal and physical harassment of journalists. This in turn led to a sense that the mainstream press was no longer able to perform its watchdog role and keep citizens adequately informed about election campaigns, austerity measures, corruption, and other critical issues.
As a result of declines in both authoritarian and democratic settings over the past several years, the proportion of the global population that enjoys a “Free” press has fallen to its lowest level in over a decade. The report found that less than 14 percent of the world’s people – or roughly one in six – 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. Moreover, in the most recent five-year period, significant country declines have far outnumbered gains, suggesting that attempts to restrict press freedom are widespread and challenges to expanding media diversity and access to information remain considerable.
Given the importance of freedom of expression and access to information for the strength and vitality of democracy as a whole, these negative trends pose a considerable challenge for the many local and international actors who are committed to ensuring the free flow of information worldwide. Better resources, partnerships, and recognition of the problems a free press face are key to ensuring that the increasingly sophisticated methods used to restrict the free flow of information are not ultimately successful.