Freedom of the press has declined

Voice of the People by James J. DevineIn the United States, President Donald Trump routinely disparages the press, conducting himself in a hostile manner that rejects the news media’s role in holding governments to account for their words and actions.

Despite those sharp political attacks, threats to withhold information and attempts to undermine the integrity of the fourth estate with such devices as Fox News, Breibart and similar misinformation outlets, Americans still have a wide array of untainted news sources and a robust opportunity to get the facts on goverment action and official misconduct.

Such setbacks on at home need to be countered because Freedom House estimates that global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016 amid unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies and new moves by authoritarian states to control the media, including beyond their borders.

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.

Forty-five percent of the population lives in countries where the media environment is Not Free. The world’s 10 worst-rated countries and territories were Azerbaijan, Crimea, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Politicians in democracies such as Poland and Hungary shaped news coverage by undermining traditional media outlets, exerting their 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 for new crackdowns on independent or opposition-oriented outlets.

Authorities in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Asia extended restrictive laws to online speech, or simply shut down telecommunications services at crucial moments, such as before elections or during protests.

Among the countries that suffered the largest declines were Poland, Turkey, Burundi, Hungary, Bolivia, Serbia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

While US citizens are far better off than some people around the world, prospects for authoritarian measures are real.

“No U.S. president in recent memory has shown greater contempt for the press than Trump in his first months in office,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, of Freedom House. “He has repeatedly ridiculed reporters as dishonest purveyors of ‘fake news’ and corrupt betrayers of the national interest. Borrowing a term popularized by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, Trump has labeled the news media as ‘enemies of the people.’ His senior White House adviser described journalists as ‘the opposition party.'”

Trump’s hostility toward the fundamental principles of democracy signal a real threat to press freedom, but Abramowitz says, “there is abundant evidence that major news organizations remain undeterred, even innovative, in pursuing serious investigations of the government and of Trump himself.”

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