The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says new media technologies make censorship more difficult, but are also increasingly utilized by repressive governments as the number of journalists imprisoned and killed continues a recent upsurge.
"This is, in fact, the most dangerous and deadly time for journalists ever documented," CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon told RFE/RL.
Simon wrote in Attacks On The Press 2017, published on April 25, that despite such things as omnipresent social-media sites and the pervasive use of smartphone cameras, undemocratic governments have stepped up their efforts to crack down on media outlets and journalists.
CPJ said there were 259 journalists imprisoned around the world in 2016 -- the most ever documented by the New York-based media watchdog since it began keeping records in 1990.
The group also reports that more journalists (332) have been killed in the last five years than in any other five-year period in the past 28 years.
"If you look at the composite figures over the last five years, we've seen a spike, really, over the last 10 years, even," Simon said. "We had a period in the late '90s, early 2000s when the number of journalists killed [annually] around the world averaged in the 20s, the 30s, into the 40s. But really going back in the last decade, we've had numbers that have consistently been in the 50s, [and even the] 70s."
'Frontal Assaults' On Free Speech
Simon said repressive states around the world are devoting more time and money to muffle and subdue the media.
"Governments are becoming increasingly sophisticated as they recognize the power -- the disruptive power -- of information, and that's why you're seeing both frontal assaults on free expression and the rights of journalists but also increasingly sophisticated strategies that allow governments to manage, control, and manipulate information," he said.
Simon pointed out that, despite incredible advances in new technology that some experts predicted would make "censorship obsolete," the job of repressing or even shutting down media outlets has only become more complicated, and the gains in technology used by journalists can also be used by governments against the media.
He divided the strategies used by governments to control or manage information into three categories: Repression 2.0, Masked Political Control, and Technology Capture
The first category, Repression 2.0, is defined as a renewal of the worse aspects of state censorship and the imprisonment of opposing voices.
Simon described masked political control as a "systematic effort to hide repressive actions by dressing them in the cloak of democratic norms." As an example, he offered a government justifying the blocking of the Internet by saying it is necessary in order to prevent hate speech or an incitement to violence when such threats were not actually present.
Technology Capture is simply using the latest technology advancements that have led to the explosion in the access to and proliferation of the Internet around the world to disrupt journalists or deny media access to people.
'Overwhelmed' By Information
The CPJ report also addresses the use of propaganda and fake news by state-run media organizations and other news outlets.
"It's precisely because there is so much information that people are overwhelmed and they have difficulty determining what's real, what's not real, what's meaningful, what impacts their lives," Simon told RFE/RL.
"If you can succeed in making a lot of noise, you can get people's attention and get them to focus on [certain] information," he added. "Governments are becoming increasingly adept at this strategy. Essentially you promulgate something that is outrageous, that attracts people's attention. Sometimes that information is real, but it serves government interests. Sometimes it is not real and there are various strategies for getting this information in front of consumers using social media or using real media that is manipulated."
Simon said propaganda and bogus news stories can have "a tremendous impact on how people around the world understand global events, how they perceive them, and what they deem to be their interests."
This creates a complex information environment, he said, but it is becoming more complex as governments enter directly and seek to manipulate and manage information in ways that advance their own interests.
Emily Parker, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent and author of Now I Know Who My Comrades Are, wrote for the CPJ report that, when compared to China, Russia failed in the beginning to fully understand the political threat posed by the Internet. But she wrote that, as Moscow has caught up in its ability to block online dissent and opposition voices, it has developed sophisticated "offensive capabilities" to distribute propaganda via the Internet and manipulate both domestic and world opinion.
CPJ concludes in its report that the "landscape of new censorship is bleak and the challenges significant."
It notes that the enemies of a free media have "attacked the new global information system at every level" and have repressed media outlets with violence against journalists and attempted to control the various platforms used to distribute news while also "sowing confusion and disinformation so that critical information" cannot be accessed by the public.
Simon noted, however, that this upsurge in attacks and suppression of the media is a response to all of the new technological and journalistic developments we have witnessed in recent years and the "liberating power of independent information."