Illiberal regimes are clamping down on independent media across the world
ACROSS the world, freedom of the press is atrophying. According to scores compiled by Freedom House, a think-tank, the muzzling of journalists and independent news media is at its worst point in 13 years. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the number of journalists jailed for their work is at the highest level since the 1990s. The deterioration has come from all quarters: Vladimir Putin has so thoroughly throttled the Russian media that Freedom House’s scorers rated Venezuela freer. Newer strongmen, such as Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua’s blood-soaked president, and Viktor Orban, Hungary’s illiberal prime minister, have also flexed censorious muscles. Even though Donald Trump has frequently demonised the news media as the “enemy of the people”, America’s strong First Amendment and independent courts have prevented him from acting on these illiberal outbursts. Nonetheless, his rhetoric has given succour to autocrats in other countries, who have passed laws outlawing “fake news” and quickly set about persecuting political opponents.
The Freedom House figures suggest that a free press is increasingly becoming a luxury limited to the West. Nordic countries continue to lead the world, and western Europe remains quite free despite a few wobbles. There are only a few bright spots to be found elsewhere. Where dictatorial regimes were unwound or forcibly ejected, such as those of Afghanistan and Myanmar, the media have gained independence, though they still fall well short of rich-country standards. Tunisia saw its press-freedom rating improve by 30 points in a 100-point scale after the Arab Spring toppled Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, its former president-for-life. But nearby Egypt has worsened dramatically since the army overthrew a government led by Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, in 2013 and named General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi president after the coup. South America has shown worrying retrenchment as well: Freedom House no longer considers Ecuador and Venezuela to have a free press. Things are worsening in major countries like Argentina, Brazil and Colombia, which find themselves on the cusp of a “not free” rating.
The case for a free press rests not only on classical liberal principles but also on hard data. Cross-country studies show strong and consistent associations between unfettered media, vibrant democracies and limited corruption. China, which has a tightly controlled media and perhaps the world’s most sophisticated censorship scheme, thinks it has proven that prosperity can be achieved without a free press. In less extreme fashion, Singapore shares similar authoritarian attitudes. Politicians everywhere do not much like to be criticised. To a worrying number of them, this Singapore model—or Beijing model, depending on preference—can prove more attractive than the Western approach of putting up with a pesky press. In normal times, America would denounce the jailing of journalists and muzzling of newspapers. But given Mr Trump’s predilections, the position of global free-press champion is vacant.
“Mr President, welcome to the land of free press.” Billboards welcoming Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to Helsinki earlier in July reminded the two presidents of the kind of country they had landed in. Helsingin Sanomat, a Finnish newspaper, lined the route from the airport with their recent headlines of the two president’s attacks on the press. It was a demonstration of how, in a few rich European countries, journalism is relatively unrestricted.
But it was also a timely reminder of how endangered press freedom is worldwide. According to Freedom House, only 13% of the world’s population enjoys a free press. Even the press-freedom scores of northern European countries like Finland have dropped. Turkey, Russia and parts of Eastern Europe, such as Hungary and Poland, saw the largest declines in press freedom: as politicians exert control over public broadcasters, undermine independent news organisations and fund politically-friendly news outlets.
In a region with 4.5bn people, only two countries, Taiwan and Japan, are considered to have a free press. Afghanistan, Nigeria and Ukraine all score higher than any South-East Asian country, and journalists face regular beatings, arrests and censorship across the continent.
Turkmenistan and North Korea are so extreme in their hostility towards journalists that they are black holes for news, with state broadcasters controlling what people see. Some recent developments seem to offer a glimmer of hope that this may change. The North Korean authorities have recently allowed more foreign journalists to cover official events. Meanwhile Turkmenistan has adopted its ever first broadcasting law allowing privately-owned TV channels. But this sense of progress is illusory. North Korea’s government still exercises draconian control over the information flows in and out of the country. Turkmenistan only allows TV stations that promote a positive image of the country. For such authoritarian governments, a free press is still the public enemy.
There is perhaps no region more hostile to a transparent press than the Middle East. Of the 20 countries tracked by Freedom House in the Middle East and North Africa region, 16 are classified as not free. Only Israel has something close to resembling a free press. Two countries, Iran and Syria, score among the world’s ten most restrictive countries on press freedoms. In monarchical Gulf states, like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar, writers critical of the governments are frequently jailed or barred from writing.
The Arab spring brought political freedom to only a handful of countries. Tunisia is perhaps the only bright spot. After a popular uprising overthrew the long-entrenched president, its press environment has improved considerably, though it is still not at the level of Western countries. Libya and Egypt both enjoyed brief moments of liberalisation after revolutions toppled their dictators, Muammar Qaddafi and Hosni Mubarak. Both have since suffered considerable drops in press freedom. In Egypt this is because of the rapidly-clenching fist of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the former general turned president; in Libya the fault lies in violence between competing factions.
Press freedom in Latin America is a tale of two countries. Costa Rica stands out as a bastion of respect for human rights in a region marred by violence and corruption. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Cuba, where the media landscape is dominated by the Castro family. Smear campaigns and imprisonment are common threats to journalists, but better access to the internet has given independent pundits more opportunities to be heard.
Another outlier is Jamaica, which beats countries such as Germany, Britain and America in terms of press freedom. But Jamaican media organisations fear that media suppression might creep in through a new data protection act. The proposed bill would grant authorities wide powers to protect the private data of citizens, such as seeking information on political, philosophical and religious beliefs.