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.
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.