A U.S.-based rights watchdog says press freedom in the world declined in 2015 to its lowest level in 12 years, under increased pressure from a combination of political, criminal, and terrorist elements.
"The forces against press freedom were strongest in the Middle East and Turkey, where governments and militants groups pressured journalists and media outlets to take sides, creating a 'with or against us' climate," Washington-based Freedom House said in its annual report, released on April 27.
The report, titled Freedom Of The Press 2016: The Battle For The Dominant Message, noted that Syria remained the deadliest place in the world for journalists in 2015, with at least 14 killed in the country, and three Syrian journalists assassinated in Turkey, apparently by the militant group Islamic State (IS).
Turkey's government used "real and perceived security threats to intensify its crackdown on the media," the report said, singling out Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for "pursuing insult charges against journalists, bloggers, and social-media users."
The paper also described Russia as "an innovator of modern state propaganda" that tightened information control at home and also stepped up efforts to manipulate the media in "geopolitically significant" neighbor states such as Ukraine, Moldova, and the Baltic and Central Asian states.
"We have seen a lot of countries grapple with the idea of what to do with content that seems like news but sometimes has political motives," Freedom House research analyst Elen Aghekyan told RFE/RL.
"We've seen this happen in Latvia, Lithuania, and Moldova, and it seems to be a remaining challenge as countries are trying to deal with the onslaught of such information but hopefully not also engage in censorship themselves."
She added, "This has especially gone global in the past few years through [Russian state-controlled information agency] 'Sputnik' which is broadcasting into many countries, and also through regular national Russian broadcasters which are received by audiences in neighboring countries that have Russian minorities."
The report also noted that, at home, the Russian government "reoriented the focus of its misinformation machine from Ukraine to President Vladimir Putin’s newest foreign exploit, the military intervention in Syria," the document noted, adding that authorities kept up the pressure on online journalism and blogging, the "small space left for free expression."
The report assesses media freedom in 199 countries and territories, each country and territory receiving a score from 0 (most free) to 100 (least free), which serves as the basis for a status designation of "free," "partly free," or "not free."
Five out of the world's 10 worst-rated countries and territories are in RFE/RL's broadcast area -- Belarus is ranked 192nd, Crimea 195th, and Iran 190th, while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan occupy the 197th and 198th spots, higher only than North Korea.
"In some Central Asian countries like Turkmenistan, there is year after year almost no change -- very closed environments. In others, like Tajikistan, we have seen a lot of repression on freedom of expression associated with a crackdown on the Islamic political parties," Aghekyan said, adding, "We saw a mix of continued closed environment, further oppression and a kind of a crackdown that is a backsliding on previous gains, so unfortunately, no good news out of that region."
Concerns About Europe
The report also noted that media freedom declined "not just in repressive societies but also in Europe," singling out politicians in Poland, Serbia, and other states who "sought greater control over national media."
The new right-wing government in Poland passed legislation "allowing it to hire and fire the management of the state-owned media," said the report.
It adds that a large influx of refugees "indirectly resulted in a variety of limitations on journalistic freedom" on the European continent, singling out Hungary, where police attacked several foreign journalists reporting on violent clashes between police and migrants.
It criticized Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, "whose well-established influence over state media was evident in their overtly biased coverage of the refugee crisis during 2015."
In the Western Balkans, Serbia, which has been designated "partly free," and Macedonia, designated "not free," were listed among the countries that suffered the largest declines in 2015.
In Serbia, several journalists suffered physical assaults, while "attacks and death threats in Macedonia and Bosnia also raised concerns, with numerous violations committed against reporters who were investigating government corruption," said the report.
"Macedonia was cause for quite some alarm after the revelations of government wiretapping of journalists, and what we've also seen in the western Balkans is ongoing violence towards journalists which has been a concern in the entire region at large and this year we also saw in places like Croatia, which previously did not have as high a degree of violence as say, Montenegro," said Aghekyan.
"The region overall is giving us quite a lot of cause for worry, as its old problems seem to be persisting but also some of the better performers seem to be headed in bad directions."