U.S.-based watchdog organisation, Freedom House, has released its Freedom of the Press 2017 report that shows sharp declines in press freedom around the world. The report was released just two days after Reporters Without Borders published its World Press Freedom Index that pointed to a similar global trend.
According to the report, global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016. The year was marked by a rise in threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies and new moves by authoritarian states to control the media.
The Freedom of the Press 2017 report says only 13 percent of the world’s population enjoys a free press. 45 percent of the population lives in countries where the media environment is not free. The countries where this is worst are Azerbaijan, Crimea, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
In sub-Saharan Africa several countries experienced declines in 2016. The report attributes this to the effects of ongoing social and political unrest, election-related crackdowns and increasingly repressive leaders. Of note are:
- Burundi – In the aftermath of a violent government crackdown on independent outlets in 2015, have settled into an atmosphere of pervasive self-censorship. The government in early 2016 permitted a handful of previously shuttered broadcasters to reopen if they agreed to a new rule mandating “balanced and objective” coverage, but a slew of suspensions and restrictions later in the year reinforced the message that outlets must stick to safe topics if they want to remain in business.
- Democratic Republic of Congo – Security forces arrested or assaulted journalists covering opposition protests and citizen-led movements. The brutal murder of Marcel Lubala Kalala, a journalist with the state-owned Radio Télévision Nationale Congolaise, shocked the country in November; press freedom advocates reported that his killers had been dressed in military uniforms.
- South Sudan – Security forces intensified scrutiny of the media, arrested journalists and halted publication of articles critical of the government.
- Tanzania – President John Magufuli showed a worrying intolerance for criticism in the press and social media, including by launching defamation prosecutions under the 2015 Cybercrimes Act and passing a problematic Media Services Act. At least 10 people had been charged with insulting the president under the Cybercrimes Act by the end of 2016.
- The Freedom House report notes with particular concern the attacks on the media by U.S. president Donald Trump. It reads: “No U.S. president in recent memory has shown greater contempt for the press than Trump in his first months in office. He has repeatedly ridiculed reporters as dishonest purveyors of ‘fake news’ and corrupt betrayers of the national interest. Borrowing a term popularised by Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin, Trump has labelled the news media as ‘enemies of the people.’”
The report warns that this hostility towards the fundamental principles of press freedom may offer a license to political leaders around the world who repress the media.