By Dahye Kim
On May 3, the United Nations General Assembly honors the fundamental principles of press freedom with World Press Freedom Day. On this day Freedom House also released Freedom of the Press 2015, the latest edition of its annual report published since 1980 to evaluate press freedom around the world.
Unfortunately, the dominant global trend in 2014 was negative. Global average score of press freedom declined to the lowest point in more than 10 years, with the largest one-year drop in a decade. There were significant declines in press freedom in 18 countries (Greece, Bahrain, Mali, Hong Kong, Azerbaijan, etc.), while just eight had significant gains (Tunisia, Myanmar, Libya, etc.)
Of 199 countries and territories, 32 percent were rated “Free”, 36 percent were rated “Partly Free”, and 32 percent were rated “Not Free.” This marks a shift toward the Partly Free category compared with the previous year.
“Police and prosecutors search the home of Fernando Villavicencio and take documentation of corruption.” – Cartoon by Xavier Bonilla, published in El Universo on December 28, 2013.
Read about CIPE’s 2014 Global Editorial Cartoon Competition.
In recent years, Latin America has seen an overall shift away from media independence and freedom of the press — only one in 50 Latin Americans live in free media environments, according to Freedom House, even though the majority of Latin American countries are still democracies. The biggest drop — 15 points in the last five years — was in Ecuador, a clear illustration of the problems that can occur when democratically elected leaders curtail media freedom.
After Rafael Correa took office on a wave of populist charisma in 2007, the Ecuadorian media began to realize that they needed to watch themselves due to various acts against independent media that alleged corruption in the Correa family or the Correa administration. These attacks against press freedom were formally legalized with the Organic Law on Communications, passed in 2012 without open debate in the National Assembly or among civil society.
This law, which Correa lauded as a step toward the democratization of media and a strengthening of freedom of expression as it broke up a near-monopoly of news sources owned by a single family, also opened the door to greater state intervention in the media.
The major concern for media outlets is that many aspects of the law were left ambiguous, allowing for broad interpretation and arbitrary application. For instance, Article 26 of the law prohibits “media lynching” and allows public officials being investigated for corruption by the media to sue the journalist or the newspaper doing the investigating. Article 71 of the law defines information as a “public good” equal to water quality and electricity, and therefore subject to increased regulation by the state.
The most recent case of the Correa administration battling perceived defamation in the media is that of Xavier Bonilla, a political cartoonist known by the pen name Bonil.
Saturday, May 3 was World Press Freedom Day, when we celebrate the vital contributions of free media around the world. Unfortunately, journalists, independent media outlets, and the legal and constitutional freedoms they depend on to do their jobs are all under attack in many parts of the world.
Freedom of the press is one of the cornerstones of democracy — without a free media to provide citizens with the information they need to hold elected leaders accountable, the institutions of democracy simply cannot function.
The latest edition of Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press index, released on Friday, shows that the proportion of the global population living in countries with a free press has declined to its lowest level in over a decade — just 14 percent. The growth of new online and social media outlets in particular has triggered an authoritarian backlash as countries from Russia to Turkey to Venezuela to Thailand crack down on these new forms of communication.
According to Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2013 report, Kyrgyzstan’s media environment remains ‘not free’ with little improvement in press freedom over the last ten years.
Though the situation is not as bleak as in the rest of Central Asia, when reporting on politically-sensitive issues in Kyrgyzstan, media outlets practice self-censorship to avoid threats or harassment. When reporting on economic topics, however, journalists often simply lack the skills or background to provide comprehensive analysis. As a result, the Kyrgyz public lacks information about important economic trends, events, and issues. As access to information is a crucial component of free societies, the poor information flow in Kyrgyzstan hinders the country’s democratic and market-economic transition.
Watch a video about RevistaPerspectiva.com (in English)
In Latin America, many citizens lack a clear understanding of democratic and free-market principles, and strong, charismatic leaders have exploited that knowledge gap. In several countries, notably Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, and Ecuador, the government exerts significant influence over traditional media outlets through direct ownership, intimidation, or even censorship.
The trend is not a positive one for freedom of the press in the region as governments become more creative in finding ways to muzzle the media. And although some have tried to censor the internet, technological and social progress mean that information consumption in Latin America is increasingly linked to the internet and less to traditional media. The importance of cross-border journalism making use of digital platforms to communicate freely is becoming more and more important in this scenario.
Today is World Press Freedom Day — a day for celebrating the vital role that a free media plays in democracy.
With journalists and media institutions increasingly under attack — both in conflict zones like Syria and in places like Hungary that were once considered consolidated democracies — in 2013 it is more important than ever to focus on the role that the media plays in a free society. While almost 40 percent of the world’s population now lives in a “free” democracy, just one in six live in societies with a fully free media, according to Freedom House’s most recent Freedom of the Press rankings. Freedom cannot be sustained without a strong, independent, inquisitive, and open media environment.