Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the Press survey was released this week in honor of World Press Freedom Day on May 3. The results reveal a continued and troubling decline in freedom of expression across the world. While inspiring in many ways, the events of the so-called “Arab Spring” have demonstrated both longstanding and emerging threats to freedom of expression and access to information in emerging democracies—the unprecedented and complete closure of the internet in Egypt, crackdowns on social media across the Arab world, and bizarre state media responses to popular protests. As a global survey, Freedom of the Press 2011: A Global Survey of Media Independence offers a broad look at the wide range of threats to freedom of expression across the world. As the summer release of Countries at the Crossroads 2011 grows nearer, Freedom of the Press findings illustrate some troubling trends in the countries featured in the 2011 publication. While Countries at the Crossroads 2011 will cover wide range of democratic governance issues in a set of countries that ranges in governance quality from Greece to Libya, the press results highlighted in Freedom of the Press are telling. Unfortunately, a regional overview shows striking uniformity in the direction of press freedom across the globe.
Given the benefit of hindsight, it is not surprising that freedom of expression came under fire in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010. With the extent of popular discontent becoming obvious, it is clear that governments sought to suppress dissent in all forms, in part by constricting the space within which media outlets could operate. Libya and Syria, both of which have a long history of media repression, experienced score declines, in part because of crackdowns on independent media and arrests of bloggers. Egypt’s now-vanished Mubarak regime, however, was the source of the most dramatic regional change. Mubarak and the National Democratic Party’s decisive crackdown on virtually all forms of media prior to the November 2010 parliamentary elections resulted in a downgrade of the country’s status from Partly Free to Not Free. As explored in this blog post, and elsewhere, the Mubarak regime shut down talk shows and newspaper columns, physically and legally harassed journalists and bloggers, and even suspended live television broadcasts prior to the elections to try to ensure that the widespread fraud and other violations that took place during the electoral season were not discussed publically. Of course, as subsequent events demonstrated, such increased pressure served only to tighten the lid on a pressure cooker that was primed to explode.
Freedom of the press was similarly restricted in Asia. Thailand’s government used the 2007 Computer Crimes Act to discourage critical discussion online, for example by demanding the removal of comments critical of the government, and continued to use its lèse-majesté laws to silence opposition voices by declaring any criticism an insult to the king. This resulted in a downgrade of the country’s press freedom status from Partly Free to Not Free. China, in addition to its regular practice of limiting coverage of a wide range of issues of public interest, clamped down yet further on its media after imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Both countries, along with a set of states such as Pakistan and the Philippines, where tension exists between a vibrant press and a sometimes lawless environment, will be featured in the upcoming edition of Crossroads.
The only region with modest improvements was Sub-Saharan Africa, where at least three Countries at the Crossroads countries improved their scores over the course of the year. Senegal’s score improved after a decrease in advertising boycotts designed to silence opposition sources, and Mauritania’s score got better following a law enabling private investment in broadcasting. These gains, however, are marred by deteriorating press freedoms elsewhere in the region. Madagascar’s ongoing political instability provided an environment for the government to constrict independent media by harassing and expelling journalists and pursuing spurious criminal defamation charges. Eritrea, a perennial opponent of freedom of expression continued to jail independent journalists imprisoned without reason after the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States.
The Latin American countries that experienced the most dramatic changes in press freedom – particularly Mexico and Honduras, which moved from Partly Free to Not Free – were featured in Countries at the Crossroads 2010. Of the countries in the upcoming edition, Bolivia and Ecuador continued a trend of decline in recent years. In Ecuador in particular, President Rafael Correa’s acute sensitivity and eagerness to vilify the press exacerbated an already polarized environment. On the other hand, Colombia and Peru, each of which had declined in 2009, managed to halt their slide (Peru) or experience a mild increase (Colombia). Venezuela, which will complete the set of Andean countries included in the 2011 edition of Crossroads, remained, after Cuba, the most restrictive country in the hemisphere with respect to press freedom.
This view of the state of freedom of expression in a set of countries that will be explored in greater breadth in Countries at the Crossroads 2011 suggests that press freedom continues to be under threat in emerging and consolidating democracies. Press freedom has occasionally been dubbed the “canary in the coal mine” as it relates to the democracy’s trajectory. Nonetheless, the broader context of threats against the media is critical, and it is precisely this context that will be explored in Countries at the Crossroads 2011. For example, the limitations in the rule of law and judicial systems that allow such attacks on journalists to go unanswered, as well as the political pathologies – personalized rule, corruption, etc – that create incentives to silence the press will be assessed. Conversely, for countries undergoing where the governance evolution has been positive, it will also demonstrate the centrality of a vibrant press to the democratic process. But as the results of Freedom of the Press 2011 make clear, far too many states remain subject to the unfortunate irony that those countries most unable or unwilling to ensure an open media environment are often the ones that most desperately need vibrant and diverse media coverage.