Global press freedoms have fallen to their lowest level in over a decade, according to a report published by Freedom House, a U.S. based organization that does research and advocacy work on democracy, human rights, and press freedoms.
The release of the report coincided with the May 3 World Press Freedom Day, established by the U.N. General Assembly in 1993 to raise awareness about the state of press freedoms around the world and to celebrate the fundamental principles of a free press, as well as to commemorate those journalists who dedicated their lives in the exercise of their profession.
Freedom House’s findings
The Freedom House survey indicates that the countries with a media rated “free” constitute only 14 percent of the world’s population. Far larger populations live in countries with media rated “not free” (44 percent) or “partly free” (42 percent) media regimes.
One of the key developments cited by the report is the ongoing political setbacks and conflicts facing Ukraine, Turkey, and a number of East African countries. Turkey remained the world’s leading jailer of journalists in 2013, with 40 behind bars as of December 1, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Another development was the major regressions that have occurred in Egypt, Libya, and Jordan, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring that had raised hopes around the world just a few years ago. Third, the responses by Western nations to media coverage of surveillance programs and national security issues put newfound pressure on press freedoms in established democracies.
“We see declines in media freedom on a global level, driven by governments’ efforts to control the message and punish the messenger,” said Karin Karlekar, project director of the report. “In every region of the world last year, we found both governments and private actors attacking reporters, blocking their physical access to newsworthy events, censoring content, and ordering politically motivated firings of journalists,” Karlekar said.
U.S. and UK press freedom rankings drop
While the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden tied for the survey’s first place ranking, the U.S. ranked 30th alongside Micronesia and Austria and the UK ranked 36th alongside Malta and Slovakia.
The U.S. fell seven spots from last year’s 23rd ranking, due in large part to increasing difficulties surrounding access to information, protection of journalistic sources, and federal judiciary efforts to curb free speech.
“The limited willingness of high-level government officials to provide access and information to members of the press, already noted in 2012, remained a concern, and additional methods of restricting the flow of information became apparent during the year,” Freedom House stated. “For example, there was an increase in the number of Freedom of Information Act requests that were either denied or censored on national security grounds.”
The UK slipped five spots from last year’s 31st ranking, primarily because of the government’s reaction to The Guardian newspaper’s coverage of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks about the National Security Agency and its British counterpart, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).
Particularly troubling, according to Freedom House, was the use of the UK Terrorism Act to detain the partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald, who broke the Snowden story, the destruction of The Guardian hard drives containing potentially sensitive source materials, and the subsequent threats of further criminal prosecution. The UK’s ranking would have dropped even further if not for the reformed libel law that Freedom House viewed as a positive development.
When the journalist becomes the story
World Press Freedom Day is also marked by the celebration of journalists who have made outstanding contributions to their profession and the oftentimes conflict-ridden settings they report from.
This year the UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize was awarded to Turkish journalist Ahmet Şik, who has devoted his career to investigating corruption and human rights abuses. In 2011, Şik was arrested on terrorism-related charges just prior to the publication of his book, entitled “The Imam’s Army,” which was seized and banned. He faces 15 years in prison if convicted.
Also in the lead up to World Press Freedom Day, the Canadian Commission for UNESCO and the Canadian Commission for World Press Freedoms awarded jailed Al Jazeera English journalist Mohamed Fahmy its annual Press Freedoms Award.
Fahmy, as well as Australian reporter Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed, have been held in Egypt since December 2013 on terrorism-related charges of conspiring with the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Writing from his cell on World Press Freedom Day, Fahmy stated, “When the journalist becomes the story rather than reporting it, you ask yourself why this happened and who is responsible for detaining you in the terrorism wing of Egypt’s most notorious prison.”
“To silence me and my colleagues on the pretext that we are a threat to national security and members of a terrorist organization is a sheer insult to the intelligence of Egyptian people and the democracy promoted in the newly ratified constitution.”
On the same day he composed this letter, the latest request by Fahmy and his colleagues to be released on bail was refused by the presiding judge. The trial is set for May 15.