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Dictators Celebrate, Autocrats Preen, Press Freedom Falls

Illustrating the precipice upon which media freedom across the world sits, Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) warned of an approaching “tipping point” in its recently released annual World Press Freedom Index . The accompanying report is gloomy, “an ever darker world.” Societies adhering to a free-flow of truthful information, once-hopeful, have been plunged into dystopia by dictators, autocrats and thugs. Later the same week US-based NGO Freedom House released its annual World Freedom of the Press 2017 report. The reports are strikingly similar: the dark side is winning.

their microphone now“We have reached the age of post-truth, propaganda, and suppression of freedoms,” said the introduction to RSF’s report. “Democracies began falling in the (RSF) Index in preceding years and now, more than ever, nothing seems to be checking that fall.” The Freedom House report is headlined “Press Freedom’s Dark Horizon.” Both the RSF and Freedom House press freedom indexes were released ahead of UNESCO-sponsored World Press Freedom Day, May 3rd. The International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) also recently published its annual Europe and Eurasia Media Sustainability Index.

Media watchers around the world were moved, mostly, to upbraid the losers and castigate the culprits. Nods were given to those countries moving up in the indexes, often with caution. “In 60 percent of countries press freedom is worse this year than the previous year,” said RSF director Christophe Deloire to (UK) Press Gazette (April 28). “Press freedom worldwide deteriorated to its lowest point in 13 years,” wrote Freedom House director of research Jennifer Dunham.

RSF has published its World Press Freedom Index since 2002. Principally funded by US government grants, Freedom House first presented its World Freedom of the Press report in 1980. Both indexes are constructed from expert evaluations scoring similar criteria.

Topping the RSF 2017 rankings is Norway, followed by Sweden, then Finland and Denmark. For a variety of reasons, not least constitutional guarantees, Scandinavian democracies have held the top spots for years. Netherlands placed fifth, Switzerland 7th, Belgium 9th and Iceland 10th. Rounding out the top ten are Central American state Costa Rica ranked 6th and Caribbean island nation Jamaica number eight. Five of the top ten are European Union Member States; Norway, Iceland and Switzerland are not.

The Freedom House index also placed Norway on top with all Scandinavian countries in the top ten. The Netherlands ranked second, tied with Sweden. Belgium, Denmark and Finland tied for 4th with Switzerland, Luxembourg, Andorra and Iceland following. The 2017 top ten varied only slightly from the previous year.

"I think it's good to see that Norway is high on such lists,” said Norwegian Press Association general secretary Elin Floberghagen commenting on the RSF report, quoted by news agency NTB (April 25). “The Norwegian society is both dependent on and served by a free press. Of course, we also have some challenges, perhaps especially related to closed doors and sometimes lack of access and information. Nevertheless, there are small problems when we see the challenges globally.”

Finland was knocked off its top rated perch, held for six years, “the single most significant incident” in the 2017 rankings, said RSF Secretary General Christophe Deloire. Prime Minister Juha Sipila was caught pressuring public broadcaster YLE to “temper its coverage of a possible conflict of interest.” YLE subsequently fired two reporters. "It would have been more surprising if Finland would not have fallen,” said Finnish Journalists Association president Hanne Aho, quoted by Finnish media business portal Markkinointi & Mainonnan (April 26).

At the bottom of the lists - “the worst of the worsts,” said the Freedom House report - are the notorious outlaws and dictatorships. North Korea and Turkmenistan tied for dead last in the Freedom House index, the bottom ten rounded out with Uzbekistan, Crimea (reported separately from Ukraine), Eritrea, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Azerbaijan, Iran and Syria. China, Vietnam, Sudan and Djibouti are included in the RSF 2017 bottom ten; North Korea also at the bottom of the bottom.

Hungary and Poland have obvious downward trajectories among nations nominally considered democracies. Press freedom in Hungary, according to the RSF ranking, dropped yet another seven places in ranking to 71st in the world. Last October the well-regarded daily Hungarian Népszabadság was forced to close. A regional publisher was acquired by a person closely aligned with prime minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz political party and business weekly Figyelő was taken over by “a close relative of the prime minister.”

PM Orban and his followers want to rid Hungary of all forms of free-thinking, part of that “illiberal” movement. News media almost completely been cleansed, state radio and television becoming party PR organs, and attention has turned to universities. With very few exceptions, Hungarian media astutely avoided mentioning the RSF press freedom index release. “We have become an example of the breakdown of press freedom,” wrote news portal hvg.hu (April 28).

The “repolanization” campaign by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to protect citizens from foreign-owned news publishers sent the country’s RSF ranking spinning down to 54th, seven places lower one year on.

Considerable attention was given in the two press freedom reports, as well as follow-up commentary, to falling scores for the United Kingdom and the United States. Both countries fell in both indexes. Everybody knows the reasons.

“In just four years, the UK has fallen ten places in the World Press Freedom Index, a deeply worrying trend that needs to be addressed,” said Open Rights executive director Jim Kollock to wired.co.uk (April 27). RSF reported press freedom in the UK “increasingly fragile” due to “poisonous rhetoric” during the European Union exit (Brexit) campaign and surveillance laws enacted with “insufficient protection for journalists.”

“Despite our proud history during which people have put their lives and liberty on the line in order to secure freedom of expression, freedom of the press is still a fragile flower here in Britain and it requires constant protection in order to flourish,” said journalism professor and former editor and columnist Roy Greenslade, quoted by (UK) Press Gazette (April 27).

“It is the far-reaching attacks on the news media and their place in a democratic society by Donald Trump, first as a candidate and now as president of the United States, that fuel predictions of further setbacks in the years to come,” wrote Freedom House president Michael Abramowitz. “No US 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 popularized by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, Trump has labeled the news media as ‘enemies of the people.’ His senior White House adviser described journalists as ‘the opposition party’.”

Thumbing his nose at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) dinner this past weekend, President Trump told supporters in rural Pennsylvania “media deserves a big, fat failing grade,” reported Politico (April 29). He gave a shout-out to supporters as “much better people” than the assembled media people in Washington. His speech was preceded by the usual Twitter-storm about “fake news” under-reporting his accomplishments.

But the WHCA event was well-attended and full of point. “Mr. President, the media is not fake news,” said legendary reporter Bob Woodward, quoted by CNN (April 30). "Whatever the climate, whether the media is revered or reviled, we should and must persist, and I believe we will. Any relaxation by the press will be extremely costly to democracy.” The efforts of Mr. Woodward and fellow Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein a generation ago “spoke truth to power” by illuminating the Watergate scandal that led to the political demise of US president Richard Nixon, which many historians believe is the genesis of Republican Party and US right-wing antipathy toward the news media.

"By eroding this fundamental freedom on the grounds of protecting their citizens, the democracies are in danger of losing their souls,” said Christophe Deloire. “We get a lot of reaction from politicians. (President) Erdogan in Turkey said we are accomplices of terrorists because he doesn’t accept what we said about his country.”

Press freedom is good for business, stock markets in particular, offered University of Luxembourg School of Finance researchers Thorsten Lehnert and Sara Abed Masror Khah in a recently published study correlating RSF Index and stock exchange valuations in 50 countries. "Despite creating some volatility on stock markets, a free press is not only good for the overall economy but is an essential part of democratic societies and policymakers should encourage an independent and fair press", said professor Lehnert, quoted by phys.org (April 20). “Freedom of the press creates more welfare and economic growth.”


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