Punishing the Messenger: 2014 Press-Freedom Review Reveals Worst Status in a Decade

EspañolGlobal press freedom has declined deleteriously, says Freedom House — an independent watchdog organization “dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world” — in its latest edition of Freedom of the Press 2014. The annual country-by-country report concludes that in 2013 press freedom reached its lowest level in over a decade. Only 14 percent of the world’s population now live in a country with “free” press media.

The report notes major regressions in Turkey, Ukraine, East Africa, and Middle Eastern countries, as well as the deterioration in a “relatively open media environment” in the United States.

Karin Karlekar, project director of the report explained: “we see declines in media freedom on a global level, driven by governments’ efforts to control the message and punish the messenger.… In every region of the world last year, we found both governments and private actors attacking reporters, blocking their physical access to newsworthy events, censoring content, and ordering politically motivated firings of journalists.”

The Freedom House’s press freedom study identified the most overt tactics that government officials use to control the news, from harassing journalists who cover protests and barring foreign reporters to censoring online news outlets and social media. Many also seek to control owners of media outlets, to have them shape media content or dismiss outspoken journalists.

On the other hand, the organization identified the key areas of improvement: more private firms operating media outlets; access to a greater variety of online media and international outlets; and better compliance among some nations with legal protections for the press.

The report rates 197 countries and assigns them a press freedom score that ranges from 0 (as the best) to 100 (worst). They are given a lower-is-better category designation of “free” (0 to 30), “partly free” (31 to 60) or “not free” (61 to 100). A team of regional experts and scholars participate in the rating process and evaluate states based on their conditions for the exercise of press freedom in their territories during the period in question. The scores are based on three subcategories: the legal, political, and economic environments.

Out of the 197 countries worldwide included in the study, a total of 63 (32 percent) states are rated free, 68 (35 percent) partly free, and 66 (33 percent) as not free. The Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden are the countries with the lowest/best scores (1), and therefore the states with most press freedom, and Turkmenistan (95), Uzbekistan (95), and North Korea (97), with the least press freedom. (The tendency towards better press freedom in less populous nations makes the percentage of people enjoying that so small.)

The Americas’ Black Eye for Press Freedom

The organization notes that the regional average score has declined to its lowest level in five years, and only 2 percent of the Latin-American population live in “free media” environments.

Press freedom in the Americas 2013

In the Americas, 15 countries (43 percent) are rated as free, 15 (43 percent) partly free, and five (14 percent) not free. In terms of population, almost 20 percent live in a not-free media environment. Even though Cuba improved by two points out of 100, the island remains at the top of the unenviable list, followed by Venezuela, Honduras, Ecuador, and Mexico.

Compared to the previous year, in particular, scores have worsened in Honduras (64), Panama (50), Suriname (28), and Venezuela (78). On the other hand, Paraguay’s rating improved from not free to partly free; its score lowered from 61 in 2013 to 59.

The report strongly criticizes Venezuela‘s declining press freedom environment. Aside from a weakening independent media, Hugo Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro “has reduced the opposition’s ability to serve as a check on government policy, and made threats to civil society groups.” In five years, Venezuela’s score for press freedom has worsened from 73 to 78, being the highest, and therefore the worst, in South America.

Marianela Balbi, executive director for the Institute of Press and Society in Venezuela (IPYS) was not surprised with these results. Balbi commented to the PanAm Post: “The report matches the reality in Venezuela.” According to the IPYS director, between the first trimester in 2013 and the first one in 2014, there was an increase of 57.7 percent in free speech violations in the country, and “this is concerning.”

“More than 219 reports of violations, 176 reporters were assaulted, 34 newspapers can’t operate because they can’t import paper due to bureaucratic processes. The persecutions to journalists have increased, cases of self-censorship are on the rise. In Venezuela we are seeing with out own eyes what an informative blockage is, regarding the protests that started in February of this year,” the director explains.

Ecuador declined to not free back in 2012, and its press freedom remains compromised with the new Communications Law “that created powerful regulatory bodies with questionable independence, placed excessive controls on content, and imposed onerous obligations on journalists and media outlets,” the report asserts.

Honduras (64) and Mexico (61) earned those scores “due to high levels of violence and intimidation against the media,” which leads to self-censorship in matters of high importance like corruption and organized crime.

Elena Toledo, a Honduran pro-democracy activist and founder of the Honduras Investiga policy institute, weighed in with the PanAm Post.

“In Honduras, freedom of expression is conditioned by three factors: the government, organized crime, and the media owners.” The first factor has been ruled by the same party for two consecutive administrations, and according to Toledo, it has made many attempts to control the media.

“First it was through a ‘Gag Law’ that society was able to stop. However, then they passed the Official Secrets Act, through which they control what can remain a secret and what can’t, so they basically control the information that gets through.” Second, organized crime and drug cartels “effortlessly” achieve self-censorship from Honduras’s journalists, given state negligence and incapacity to protect them. The third factor Toledo points to is the media owners, whose “political and economic interests control the media content. In Honduras, knowing who owns a media outlet to know the veracity with which the news will come out.”

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