This article was first published by ARTICLE 19.
An annual metric, published by ARTICLE 19, shows that global freedom of expression has declined significantly over the last three years. The Expression Agenda (XpA) uses independently collected and verified data to give a comprehensive picture of the state of freedom of expression around the world. 24 countries showed an overall decline in freedom of expression between 2014 and 2017.
Executive Director Thomas Hughes said:
“Our data shows that freedom of expression has been in decline for ten years and that this demise has accelerated significantly in the last three years.
“This is a global phenomenon with many violations happening in countries where freedom of expression has traditionally been protected.
“This report is a wake-up call about the precarious state of freedom of expression and how quickly it can be undermined by those who want to close down free speech, dissent and informed opposition. We call on governments and power-holders to look at the evidence of our report and commit to reversing this corrosive trend.”
Media freedom showed greatest rate of decline in 2017
The metric measures freedom of expression across five areas: civic space, digital freedom, media freedom, protection and transparency. The area that saw the greatest rate of decline in 2017 was media freedom.
- 78 journalists and 312 rights defenders were killed
- 326 journalists were imprisoned; 194 of these were on anti-state charges
- 97% of jailed journalists are local reporters
- On average, 90% of physical crimes against journalists go unpunished.
- Media freedom declined in 48 countries between 2014-2017
The tactics used to undermine media freedom range from verbal attacks, legal threats and imprisonment to physical attacks and murder. However, the intention is the same – to silence journalists and create a climate of fear that discourages others from speaking out. Journalists today face threats from a range of actors, including governments, organised criminals, business interests and religious fundamentalism.
Countries where media freedom declined in 2017, included democracies such as Poland, India and the US.
In Poland, independent journalists and media outlets faced intimidation and state media was moved under government control.
In India, one of the biggest decliners for media freedom between 2014-17, seven journalists were killed last year. Journalists have been subjected to online smear campaigns and threats by Hindu nationalists, contributing to a climate of self-censorship.
One of the most worrying developments has been the decline of media freedom in the US, where the press has some of the strongest and oldest protections. American journalists’ ability to report is being undermined by attacks, arrests, border stops, searches of devices, prosecution of whistleblowers and restrictions on the release of public information. This situation has been made worse by the Trump administration’s open hostility to the media.
The impact of this goes beyond the US. The narrative of ‘fake news’ has been seized upon by world leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, Bashar al-Assad and Nicolás Maduro, to openly attack the media and close down scrutiny of their policies and actions.
Rise in ‘strongman’ politics
The overall decline in freedom of expression over the last three years has been matched by a rise in ‘strongman’ politics, characterised by leaders such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.
Hungary, still technically a democracy, has become increasingly autocratic, passing one of Europe’s most repressive laws against non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in 2017. Prior to the general election in 2018, pro-government media published articles that discredited journalists, and by October 2017, Orbán had effectively bought up all of Hungary’s regional media.
Since 2012, when Vladimir Putin became President for the second time, the pressure on the media, legal restrictions, threats, and violence against communicators and rights defenders have escalated year on year. In particular, Russians have had their digital rights eroded through a range of laws. These have included the blacklisting of websites, attempts to ban anonymous messaging apps and measures to force communications providers to store metadata about their users’ communications activities.
Turkey declined across all of the XpA’s themes. Since the attempted coup in 2016, the Erdogan government has systematically destroyed the independent media, closed down civil society groups and universities and prosecuted political opponents. There are now 174 journalists are in prison.
This pattern of leaders with autocratic tendencies, and a desire to silence criticism and opposition, represents a shift away from debate, democracy and accountability. With the recent election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, it is a trend that looks likely to continue in 2018.
The XpA metric is visualised in the following graphic, which allows user to compare data from 176 countries.