Global press freedom has continued its decline, now at its lowest point in 13 years in 2016 due to unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies, intensified crackdowns by authoritarian states, and moves by Russia and China to increase their influence beyond their borders, according to Freedom of the Press 2017, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual report on media freedom worldwide.
Some of the steepest declines on the report’s 100-point scale occurred in Poland, Turkey, and Hungary. The situation in Hungary and Turkey has been deteriorating for several years, but the sharp drop in Poland is a new and alarming development.
“Political leaders and other partisan forces in many democracies—including the United States, Poland, the Philippines, and South Africa—attacked the credibility of independent media and fact-based journalism, rejecting the traditional watchdog role of the press in free societies,” said Jennifer Dunham, director of research for Freedom of the Press.
KEY GLOBAL FINDINGS
- Only 13 percent of the world’s population enjoys a Free press—that is, a media environment where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.
- 42 percent of the world’s population has a Partly Free press. 45 percent live in countries where the media environment is Not Free.
- Politicians in democratic states launched or escalated efforts to shape news coverage by delegitimizing media outlets, exerting political influence over public broadcasters, and raising the profile of friendly private outlets.
- Officials in more authoritarian settings such as Turkey, Ethiopia, and Venezuela used political or social unrest as a pretext to intensify crackdowns on independent or opposition-oriented outlets.
- The world’s 10 worst-rated countries and territories were Azerbaijan, Crimea, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
A Grim Outlook
Global press freedom will likely continue to decline in the absence of strong leadership from the United States, EU members, and other democracies. If President Donald Trump and his administration continue their harsh criticism of factual reporting and take other actions that pose a threat to the U.S. constitution’s First Amendment, Washington’s ability to apply normative pressure to media freedom violators around the world will suffer.
It will be just as difficult for the EU to play a leading global advocacy role. The rise of Euroskeptic populist parties and the United Kingdom’s vote to withdraw from the bloc have left the EU in an existential crisis, and its struggle to respond effectively to restrictions on press freedom in Hungary and Poland undermine its ability to uphold democratic standards farther afield.
Without the traditional pressure from those two powers, undemocratic governments will have far less incentive to heed the warnings of press freedom advocates. The global flow of accurate news and information will consequently weaken, and citizens, businesses, and policymakers in all countries will pay the price.