France-based Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières, or RSF) released its 2016 World Press Freedom Index on Wednesday, and the news is grim. All parts of the world have seen a decline in press freedom, leading to fears of a “new era of propaganda.”
“The 2016 edition of the World Press Freedom Index…shows that there has been a deep and disturbing decline in respect for media freedom at both the global and regional levels. Ever since the 2013 index, Reporters Without Borders has been calculating indicators of the overall level of media freedom violations in each of the world’s regions and worldwide. The higher the figure, the worse the situation. The global indicator has gone from 3719 points last year to 3857 points this year, a 3.71% deterioration. The decline since 2013 is 13.6%.”
Physical threats to journalists, increasingly authoritarian governments, threats from religious ideologies, tighter control of state-owned media and lack of security in war-torn countries are all contributing to the downward spiral.
Latin America, whose ranking plunged 20.5%, is of particular concern. Journalists are attacked and murdered in Mexico and central America, while corruption in Brazil and media concentration in Argentina are also factors.
Repressive governments, including U.S. allies in the Middle East and communist China, suspend access to the internet or even destroy media premises or equipment. Oligarchs are buying up media outlets to exert pressure along with their allies in government.
Around the world, laws are being adopted to criminalize journalists for things such as “insulting the president,” “blasphemy” or “supporting terrorism.”
Christophe Deloire, secretary general of RSF, spoke to Agence France Presse about the situation.
“All of the indicators show a deterioration. Numerous authorities are trying to regain control of their countries, fearing overly open public debate. Today, it is increasingly easy for powers to appeal directly to the public through new technologies, and so there is a greater degree of violence against those who represent independent information. We are entering a new era of propaganda where new technologies allow the low-cost dissemination of [governments’] own communication, their information, as dictated. On the other side, journalists are the ones who get in the way.”
The Middle East/North Africa region is still home to the worst repression against journalism, with China and North Korea joining those countries at the bottom of the index. Finland, the Netherlands and Norway top the list of countries with the most press freedom.
The U.S.—which often touts itself as “leader of the free world” and routinely chastises other countries for human rights abuses while its own abuses go unchecked—ranks 41st in the Press Freedom Index. Although it is an improvement from 49th place, significant threats remain. Unsurprisingly, these threats are carried out under the guise of “national security.”
“US media freedom, enshrined in the First Amendment to the 1787 constitution, has encountered a major obstacle – the government’s war on whistleblowers who leak information about its surveillance activities, spying and foreign operations, especially those linked to counter-terrorism. Furthermore, US journalists are still not protected by a federal “shield law” guaranteeing their right not to reveal their sources and other confidential work-related information.”
The Obama administration has been instrumental in silencing those who expose government wrongdoing by prosecuting “more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined.”
It’s not only whistleblowers who are under the threat of state violence for their words. In June of last year, the DoD released its 1,180 page Law of War Manual which outlines provisions for military commanders to violate the rights of journalists who they disagree with in vaguely written legal speak.
According to the Associated Press:
The Law of War manual, updated to apply for the first time to all branches of the military, contains a vaguely worded provision that military commanders could interpret broadly, experts in military law and journalism say. Commanders could ask journalists to leave military bases or detain journalists for any number of perceived offenses.
“In general, journalists are civilians,” the 1,180 page manual says, but it adds that “journalists may be members of the armed forces, persons authorized to accompany the armed forces, or unprivileged belligerents.”
A person deemed “unprivileged belligerent” is not entitled to the rights afforded by the Geneva Convention so a commander could restrict from certain coverage areas or even hold indefinitely without charges any reporter considered an “unprivileged belligerent.”
The manual allows for the stripping of due process, and reporters who are deemed “belligerent” could be carted off to Gitmo and never heard from again.
The manual states that they are not ruling out torturing journalists either. According to the manual:
“Reporting on military operations can be very similar to collecting intelligence or even spying. A journalist who acts as a spy may be subject to security measures and punished if captured.”
The 2016 presidential election is also demonstrating the shortcomings of American press freedom. Candidates from both political parties have regularly restricted journalist access to campaign events, as they con voters into believing they will work for the people and not the Washington establishment.
In addition to this authoritarian threat to journalism, the U.S. has a particular problem with television-based outlets that profess to be purveyors of news but are more accurately called infotainment. Fox News and CNN are examples of this farcical notion of “news” that misinforms so many Americans, distracting the populace from real issues and acting as Praetorian Guard for government.
“The climate of fear results in a growing aversion to debate and pluralism, a clampdown on the media by ever more authoritarian and oppressive governments, and reporting in the privately-owned media that is increasingly shaped by personal interests. Journalism worthy of the name must be defended against the increase in propaganda and media content that is made to order or sponsored by vested interests. Guaranteeing the public’s right to independent and reliable news and information is essential if humankind’s problems, both local and global, are to be solved. — RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire”
True journalism has always been heralded as a check on government power and abuse. In the age of instant information transfer, independent media represent a force like never before to counter authoritarianism. We must take seriously the RSF report and strengthen the fight to retain press freedom.