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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (left) and Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic both come under sharp criticism by Freedom House for their treatment of the press.

Leaders intent on consolidating power are finding new ways to repress independent media, Freedom House has warned, saying that the phenomenon is evident both in democracies and authoritarian states.

In its report titled Freedom And The Media 2019, released on June 5, Freedom House said that in some fragile democracies, antidemocratic leaders are using a variety of financial and legal tools to silence independent journalists and support friendly outlets.

"Over the past few years, a new toolbox has emerged that illiberal leaders in fragile democracies deploy to control and co-opt the press, with the aim of ensuring their stay in power,” the Washington-based watchdog said.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s ruling Fidesz party has "all but consolidated its control over the media, and has built a parallel reality where government messages and disinformation reinforce each other," it said.

In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vucic and his allies are following in Orban’s footsteps, it said, adding that while they have yet to consolidate control over Serbia’s media, an environment of intimidation inhibits journalists’ day-to-day work.

Orban's government and Vucic's administration "have had great success in snuffing out critical journalism, blazing a trail for populist forces elsewhere," the report said.

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The new “toolbox” deployed against independent journalists leaves out the usual methods of censorship or physical attacks and threats, Freedom House said.

Instead, the Serbian journalists face smears and verbal harassment from politicians and various online accounts as well as government-friendly tabloids.

The Serbian government also uses tax authorities to harass media outlets, the report said.

In 2017, the weekly Vrjanske Novine received daily visits, which coincided with its publication of an interview with a former tax official. The weekly subsequently ceased its operations, with the publication’s owner announcing that the paper could no longer withstand the pressure.

In 2018, the news site Juzne Vesti, known for its critical reporting, was subjected to its fifth months-long tax investigation.

A recent privatization drive in Serbia handed several outlets to owners friendly with the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).

Both Hungary and Serbia declined from Free to Partly Free in Freedom House’s most recent Freedom In The World report.

Meanwhile, established autocratic states continue to clamp down on independent media, fearing that “any breach in their media dominance threatens to expose official wrongdoing or debunk official narratives,” the group said.

Russian authorities tried to block the popular messaging application Telegram in 2018 after the company refused to hand over its encryption keys to security officials, the report pointed out.

Pakistan, where press freedom is highly restricted, is mulling a bill that would impose a licensing regime on online journalists and news outlets.

In Belarus, amendments to the Media Law in December 2018 expanded the definition of traditional media to include online outlets and related websites. The move resulted in the blocking of several independent news sites that had enjoyed relative editorial freedom.

In what Freedom House described as the most concerning development in recent years, press freedom has come under unusual pressure in the United States.

The report said that while U.S. legal protections for media freedom remain strong, President Donald Trump’s “continual vilification” of the press and journalists has exacerbated an ongoing erosion of public trust in the mainstream media.

Freedom House is primarily funded by grants from the United States government, with 88 percent of its 2018 annual funding come from U.S. federal grants.

Trust in the media is lower in some other countries, according to Freedom House.

"In the United States, fewer than half the population say they trust the media; the figure is around one-third in Italy and the United Kingdom, and only one-fourth in Turkey or Russia," it said.

The report said that among other steps, Trump has repeatedly threatened to strengthen libel laws, revoke the licenses of certain broadcasters, and damage media owners’ other business interests.

Journalists around the world have less reason to believe that Washington will come to their aid if their basic rights are violated, Freedom House said.

The report also highlighted what it calls the positive relationships between increasing media freedoms and democratic progress in some countries.

In Malaysia and Ecuador, the lifting of political pressure on the press paved the way for media outlets to rebound from censorship, the report said.

In Ethiopia and The Gambia, outlets and journalists that had been operating from abroad were able to return to the country.

Yandex's headquarters in Moscow

Russian media reported that Yandex, the country's largest search engine, has refused to turn over encryption keys that would give the country's law enforcement the ability to decode its entire e-mail traffic.

Yandex would not confirm the report, first made by the newspaper RBK on June 4, instead issuing a statement saying that it could meet law enforcement demands without compromising personal privacy.

The report comes as the Kremlin has tightened control in recent years over the country’s Internet -- a move that opponents of President Vladimir Putin say is aimed at squashing discontent and challenges to his rule.

RBK reported that the Federal Security Service had requested the company's encryption keys a few months ago.

The Moscow-based company, whose shares trade on the U.S. tech stock exchange NASDAQ, fears that handing over the keys will drive users toward Google, its largest competitor, and result in a decline in earnings, the news agency reported.

Yandex did not immediately respond to a request from RFE/RL to confirm the report.

"The aim of the law is to ensure safety and we completely share the importance of these goals. However, fulfilling the law is possible without compromising the privacy of personal data," Yandex said in its June 4 statement to local media.

"The law talks about handing over information that is necessary to decode messages, which does not imply a demand to transfer the keys needed to decipher all traffic," Yandex said in a statement.

While Russia's TV and print media largely remain in the hands of the state or businessmen close to power, the Internet remains relatively uncontrolled.

Russia now requires more than 170 entities it calls "information disseminators" -- such as Yandex and popular dating app Tinder -- to store servers containing its residents' communication data inside the country and give access to law enforcement when they demand it.

Roskomnadzor, the nation's communications regulator, last week added Tinder to the list of entities, sparking concern over law enforcement access to intimate messages.

Jonathan Mayer, a Princeton University computer science professor, said Russia's approach contrasted with that of law enforcement agencies in Western nations: requesting the data they need, not the encryption keys.

“What the Russian government aims to do is take online services out of the loop -- eliminating an important backstop for human rights and the rule of law. The Russian government's demand also poses a cybersecurity risk for all users of these online services, regardless of whether they're the target of surveillance,’’ Mayer told RFE/RL.

Roskomnadzor last year tried to block encrypted messaging service Telegram, which is wildly popular within Russia, for not handing over its keys.

It has blocked Microsoft's professional networking website LinkedIn and also fined Facebook and Twitter for not following the nation's Internet laws.

Russia is unlikely to seek to block Yandex as it did with Telegram, Sarkis Darbinian, a partner at the Center for Digital Rights, told RBK. He predicted the two sides would find a compromise because blocking the services of one of Russia's largest Internet companies would be a ''nightmare" for the government.

A shutdown would lock out tens of millions of Russians from their e-mail and force them to use less popular search engines.

With reporting by RFE/RL correspondent Todd Prince in Washington, RBK and Kommersant

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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