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Democracy Monitor Finds Press Freedom At Lowest Point In Decade

  • Farangis Najibullah

U.S. President Donald Trump frequently disparages press reports as "fake news."

The U.S.-based democracy monitor Freedom House says only 13 percent of the world’s population live in countries with a free press.

In its annual report released on April 28, the nongovernmental group says global press freedom declined in 2016 to its lowest point in more than a decade due to continued crackdowns on independent media in authoritarian states and unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies.

The report -- titled Freedom of the Press 2017: Press Freedom's Dark Horizon -- assesses the degree of media freedom in 199 countries and territories to classify each as either "free," "partly free," or "not free."

Freedom House says a free press is a media environment where coverage of political news is robust, state intrusion in media affairs in minimal, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, and the press is not subject to legal and economic pressures.

It says 42 percent of the world’s population has a "partly free" press, while 45 percent live in countries where the media environment is not free.

The report says that while authoritarian regimes continued or extended their crackdowns on media, politicians in some democratic states launched or escalated efforts to shape news coverage by delegitimizing media outlets, exerting political influence over public broadcasters, and raising the profiles of friendly private outlets.

It says U.S. President Donald Trump has disparaged the press both as a candidate and now as president of the United States, rejecting the news media’s role in holding government officials accountable for their words and actions.

The report says Trump has repeatedly ridiculed reporters as dishonest purveyors of "fake news" and corrupt betrayers of U.S. national interests, while his senior White House adviser described journalists as “the opposition party.”

Freedom House warns that when media are lambasted by political leaders in the United States -- a cornerstone of global democracy -- it encourages their authorities abroad to do the same.

The democracy monitor points out that the protection of press freedom in the United States remains vital to the defense and expansion of press freedom worldwide.

It says that in 2016 Eurasia continued to be the worst-performing region in the world for press freedom. Not a single country was ranked "free" there.

According to Freedom House, 77 percent of Eurasia's population lives in countries where the press is "not free."

All five former Soviet republics in Central Asia -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- are ranked "not free," along with the Caucasus former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Elen Aghekyan, a research analyst at Freedom House, says that even in the more democratic states of Eurasia, officials' attitudes toward the media remain alarming.

Security forces in Armenia brutally assaulted several reporters covering mass antigovernment protests, Aghekyan adds.

Russia is also ranked "not free."

One of Russia's last independent media groups, RBC, came under pressure after reporting on apparent corruption involving the family and associates of President Vladimir Putin, the report says.

Three RBC editors were replaced by recruits from the state-owned TASS news agency -- a clear reminder of the pitfalls on reporting about Russia's ruling elite, Freedom House notes.

Meanwhile, faced with Moscow-controlled outlets that disseminate disinformation and undermine the legitimacy of Ukrainian institutions, the government in Kyiv continued to limit access to numerous Russian outlets and deny entry to dozens of Russian journalists.

Freedom House ranks Ukraine as "partly free," while Ukraine's Russian-occupied Crimea region is ranked "not free."

Belarus, notorious for government crackdowns on dissent, is also ranked "not free."

But Freedom House notes some small improvements in the country’s media environment, netting Belarus a gain of eight points in the group's table of the Biggest Press Freedom Gains And Declines in 2016.

"Belarus, undoubtedly, in 2016 remained one of the most repressive and restrictive environments for journalists in the world," Aghekyan says, adding that in authoritarian states like Belarus "very small improvements, or even the lack of violence in a given year in comparison to a history of stronger repression can sometimes register small [increases]" in their score.

"For Belarus, in particular, the improvement in 2016 was due to the fact that journalists were able to cover the 2016 [parliamentary] election with significantly less interference, and especially, not the kind of the violence that we have seen in the past election years," Aghekyan says.

Most Balkan countries are ranked "partly free." The only exception, Macedonia, is ranked "not free."

In Serbia, Freedom House notes a "sharp decline" in the media environment in 2016.

According to the report, in order to discredit unfriendly media outlets, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic outsourced much of his presidential election campaign to the pro-government tabloid Informer, which published unfounded accusations against critical journalists.

Freedom House welcomes "positive developments" in Afghanistan, where the government moved to improve the media environment.

Afghanistan is ranked "partly free," an improvement Aghekyan says is due to recent legal changes that illustrate the government’s more favorable stance on media independence, as well as long-term growth in the diversity of private media.

However, she points out that the security situation has continued to deteriorate, further restricting journalists' ability to operate safely throughout the country.

A Taliban attack that killed seven Tolo TV employees in early 2016 marked the deadliest single assault on journalists in Afghanistan during the past decade.

The ongoing violence has forced hundreds of Afghan journalists to leave the country, an exodus that Freedom House warns could deal a heavy blow to the survival of democracy in Afghanistan.

Similar concerns about increasing threats against media and journalists across the world have been raised this week by the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders in annual reports released ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

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