By Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Karin Deutsch Karlekar is project director at Freedom House for ‘Freedom of the Press,’ an annual country-by-country survey of press freedom issues. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
At first glance, the rapidly changing ways information is produced, distributed and consumed should be signs of a golden age for the world’s press. A broader range of professionals as well as citizen journalists and bloggers are writing, broadcasting and posting information in a larger variety of ways. Their news is traveling faster and reaching larger audiences. But the world’s media is facing significant new pressures and growing dangers in almost every region of the world.
Our research for Freedom of the Press 2014, finds that as media evolve and innovate, governments’ attempts to restrict and suppress independent information have become no less innovative and widespread.
By our measures, which evaluate the environment journalists operate within as well as access to news and information, global press freedom has fallen to its lowest level in over a decade. Only 14 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where we rate the press as “Free,” while the vast majority live in “Partly Free” (42 percent) or “Not Free” (44 percent) media environments.
Key factors for the decline include governments’ attempts – particularly in authoritarian states or polarized political situations – to control news content. Some authorities rely on extreme measures such as the murder of journalists or blanket censorship. But a growing number also use newer, more subtle techniques – from physically harassing journalists covering protest movements, to restricting foreign reporters, to tightening constraints on online news outlets and social media. In a number of countries, private owners of media outlets exercise undue control by altering editorial lines or dismissing key staff after acquiring previously independent organizations.
Over the last year, some of the most overt attempts to restrict press freedom occurred as journalists and photographers covering street unrest or protest movements were harassed. Numerous instances were reported in Turkey, during the extended Gezi Park protests, in Egypt during the protracted clashes between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and the forces arrayed against it, and in Ukraine.
Foreign journalists – who play a key role in more closed environments in the coverage of sensitive stories and in spreading news to a global audience – are not immune to pressure. Russia and China declined to renew or threatened to withhold visas for prominent reporters. Upping the ante, the new Egyptian government went a step further by detaining a number of Al Jazeera staff on charges of supporting terrorism; three are currently on trial.
New media, such as online social networks and microblogs, and digital means of transmission, such as the internet and mobile phones, have also come under renewed threat. While China and Vietnam continue their efforts to control online speech by arresting bloggers, other countries are imposing restrictions by introducing or extending existing laws to cover online content, or by censoring websites.
In the United States, the government has sought to limit reporting on national security issues. The United States’ and other governments’ reported targeting of ordinary citizens as well as political figures for surveillance also raises concerns about the ability of journalists to protect sources and maintain their digital privacy.
Media freedom is also facing threats from private actors employing more subtle techniques. Ownership changes at key media outlets – particularly when the new owners had close connections to governments or ruling parties – leads in some cases to altered, less critical editorial tones, and in others to the dismissals or resignations of journalists deemed to be too outspoken. In Turkey, dozens of journalists were allegedly forced from their jobs because of their coverage of politically sensitive issues, including high-profile dismissals.
Given the importance of freedom of expression and access to information to the strength and vitality of democracy and economic growth, we need to ensure that journalists under pressure receive support, and that such threats to their independence and ability to report freely are widely publicized. Keeping the new channels of communication as open and uncensored as possible is the key to ensuring that the increasingly sophisticated methods used to restrict the free flow of information are not ultimately successful.