Freedom of the Press 2016
The Battle for the Dominant Message
Jennifer Dunham
Key Findings
Global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 12 years in 2015, as political, criminal, and terrorist forces sought to co-opt or silence the media in their broader struggle for power.
The share of the world’s population that enjoys a Free press stood at just 13 percent, meaning fewer than one in seven people live in countries 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.
Steep declines worldwide were linked to two factors: heightened partisanship and polarization in a country’s media environment, and the degree of extralegal intimidation and physical violence faced by journalists. These problems were most acute in the Middle East, where governments and militias increasingly pressured journalists and media outlets to take sides, creating a “with us or against us” climate and demonizing those who refused to be cowed. At the same time, the Islamic State (IS) and other extremist groups continued their violent attacks on the media and disseminated powerful alternate narratives through their own networks, reaching vast audiences without the need to rely on journalists or traditional news outlets.
Even in the much more open media environments of Europe, journalists faced unusual levels of pressure from terrorists and, to an extent, their own governments. In a year that began with the shocking murder of eight cartoonists and editors at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, media freedom in the region was threatened by violence, new surveillance and antiterrorism laws, and verbal attacks or interference from politicians and government officials.
The varied threats to press freedom around the world are making it harder for media workers to do their jobs, and the public is increasingly deprived of unbiased information and in-depth reporting. However, journalists and bloggers have shown resilience. Often at great risk to their lives, they strive to transmit information to their communities and the outside world, and circulate views that contradict those promoted by governments or extremist groups.
Loyalty or Silence
Pressure on journalists to display political loyalty was especially intense in Egypt, where the state-owned outlets and nearly all private media embraced a progovernment narrative, and few dared to cross redlines on stories related to the military, security, and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi himself frequently convened private meetings with prominent newspaper editors and television presenters to discuss the government’s wishes.
The Libyan media, which experienced a dramatic opening after the fall of Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, were caught between rival governments in Tripoli and Tobruk in 2015, in many cases becoming little more than mouthpieces for whichever government or affiliated militia controlled their region. Civil conflict similarly increased media polarization in Yemen, as outlets fell into line with either the exiled government or the Houthi rebels, and independent writers and journalists were marginalized or persecuted. Extremist groups opposed to both sides also took their toll.
Syria remained by far the deadliest place in the world for journalists in 2015, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). At least 14 were killed in the country, and three Syrian journalists who had sought safety abroad were assassinated in Turkey, apparently by IS. In addition to terrorizing journalists, IS has proven adept at bypassing formal news outlets and using social media to spread its propaganda around the world.
Struggles for media dominance played out in a number of other countries as well. In Turkey, authorities loyal to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seized critical private media groups and turned them over to politically friendly trustees—a new tactic in the government’s ongoing assault on press freedom. In October 2015, state officials took over Koza İpek Holding, the owner of critical outlets including the television channels Kanaltürk and Bugün and the newspapers Bugün and Millet. In March 2016, the private media group Feza Journalism, owner of Zaman, Turkey’s largest newspaper, was also seized. Both actions were based on the companies’ association with exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, a former Erdoğan ally who has been branded a terrorist.
The already limited space for investigative journalism and online commentary in China shrank further during 2015, continuing a trend of ideological tightening under President Xi Jinping. Professional journalists from established news outlets were detained, imprisoned, and forced to air televised confessions—including Wang Xiaolu of the prominent financial magazine Caijing, who was arrested for his coverage of the falling stock market. Censorship of news and internet content related to the financial system and environmental pollution increased as the economy slowed and smog thickened. Xi reinforced his vision of complete loyalty in early 2016, declaring in a high-profile speech that all forms of media should fully identify with the ruling Communist Party’s agenda, even in the realms of entertainment and advertising.
Security and Politics
The murder of eight cartoonists and editors in the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 made France second only to Syria for the total number of journalists killed during the year. The attack also underscored the ongoing calculations that journalists must make, even in otherwise free countries, about the possibility of retribution for their work. Such concerns were compounded a month later, when a gunman opened fire on a free expression event in Copenhagen.
In the early days after the Charlie Hebdo attack, an outpouring of support for free expression raised hopes for lasting solidarity on the issue. Instead, as the year progressed, media freedoms in some of the world’s strongest democracies came under pressure from security-minded governments and populist politicians.
In Spain, a public security law adopted in March 2015 imposed heavy financial penalties on any individuals at a protest, including journalists, who decline to identify themselves to authorities, fail to obey orders to disperse, or disseminate unauthorized images of law enforcement personnel. The last point in particular threatens the work of photojournalists and others who seek to inform the public about police abuses. Defending his government’s overall approach, Spanish interior minister Jorge Fernández Díaz emphasized the need to strike a “balance between freedom and security”—an approach criticized by many free expression groups.
Other democratic governments used a similar rationale in codifying their surveillance practices. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, the French government pushed through an intelligence bill that gave authorities sweeping surveillance powers with little oversight, leaving journalists and their data vulnerable to intrusive monitoring. In November, the British government published a draft bill, currently under review, that would require telecommunications companies to retain citizens’ browsing histories and communications data for possible use by the authorities. A law passed in Australia in March 2015 requires telecommunications firms to store metadata on calls and messaging for two years. Media advocates warn that such measures could be used to identify journalists’ sources and expose government whistle-blowers.
In another worrisome development, some European political leaders focused their attention on editorial control over public broadcasters. One of the first moves of the new right-wing government in Poland was to pass legislation on December 31 that allows it to hire and fire the management of the state-owned media. The ruling Law and Justice party’s claims that the media are biased against the interests of ordinary Poles presage further pressure on journalistic independence in what had been one of Europe’s most successful new democracies. The party’s actions were reminiscent of those of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, whose well-established influence over state media was evident in their slanted coverage of the refugee crisis during 2015.
Dogged Resilience
Despite the relentless efforts of authoritarian regimes, organized crime groups, and militant factions to restrict the free flow of information, many tenacious journalists have refused to bow to corrupt or violent forces.
During a fifth year of barbarous violence in Syria, journalists with the anonymous media collective Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently continued to clandestinely document rights violations by IS, even after it released propaganda videos depicting the executions of captive reporters. Activists with another such collective, Eye on the Homeland, reported from conflict zones across Syria on abuses committed by the Damascus regime, IS, and other armed groups. The courageous members of these media cooperatives offer domestic and international audiences a credible alternative to the narratives promoted by the warring parties.
A culture of investigative reporting persists in parts of Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia, where some journalists still delve into dangerous or politically sensitive issues like corruption and organized crime despite the risk to their lives and livelihoods. Government-issued bans and widespread property destruction decimated independent media in Burundi following the failed coup attempt against President Pierre Nkurunziza, yet journalists pressed on, moving radio outlets to online platforms and disseminating news via text-message services.
In China, where—according to CPJ—more journalists are imprisoned than in any other country, some reporters disregarded government directives meant to control coverage of a deadly industrial accident in Tianjin last summer. More recently, in March 2016, the respected Caixin media group dared to publicize the censorship of an article that touched on dissent in the Communist Party. The Communist Party of Vietnam maintains one of the most restrictive media environments in the world, but it has been unable to quash a vibrant array of underground print and online publications, some of which continue to operate even as contributors languish in jail.
Other Major Developments in 2015
In addition to those described above, three major phenomena stood out during the year.
Notable Gains and Declines in 2015
The following reflect developments of major significance or concern in 2015.
The Dangerous Six: Dangerous Topics for Journalists
A number of topics pose particular risks for journalists, who can face threats, imprisonment, and even brutal violence for attempting to cover them. The dangers of reporting on national security and terrorism are well documented, but the following six topics also stand out.
Regional Trends
Mixed Responses to Political and Electoral Tensions
Journalists in East and Southern Africa suffered from a sharp increase in political pressure and violence in 2015. In the midst of Burundi’s political crisis in May, which stemmed from the president’s pursuit of a third term, nearly all independent media outlets were closed or destroyed. The loss of these outlets, especially radio stations that had been the main source of information, resulted in a dearth of reporting on critical issues. Extensive intimidation and violence against journalists by the regime of President Pierre Nkurunziza and his supporters drove many into exile.
Elsewhere in East Africa, the run-up to early 2016 elections in Uganda featured an increase in harassment of journalists attempting to cover opposition politicians. In Kenya, greater government pressure in the form of repressive laws, intimidation, and threats to withdraw state advertising resulted in a reduction in critical reporting on President Uhuru Kenyatta and his cronies. Tanzania passed two highly restrictive laws—the Statistics Act and the Cybercrimes Act—in 2015, and its newly elected president has given little indication that he will revise or repeal them. Finally, despite the release of 10 imprisoned journalists in 2015, Ethiopia continued to repress all independent reporting, and remained the second-worst jailer of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa, after Eritrea.
In Zimbabwe, journalists and media outlets were drawn into succession-related infighting among leaders of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Members of the media faced increased threats and attacks—including the abduction and disappearance of prominent local journalist Itai Dzamara—as well as continued arrests for libel that contradicted a constitutional court ruling on the issue. Meanwhile, an economic crisis in the country contributed to the closure of two media houses.
Ghana, previously the only Free country on the continent’s mainland, suffered a status decline to Partly Free as a result of several factors. Journalists encountered more attempts to limit coverage of news events and confiscations of equipment; increased violence by the police, the military, political party members, and ordinary citizens, including the first murder of a journalist in more than 20 years; and continued electricity outages that impaired media production and distribution.
However, other countries in West Africa showed encouraging improvements. Burkina Faso, which endured a coup attempt and an uncertain election in 2015, decriminalized libel and made progress on a long-stalled investigation into the murder of journalist Norbert Zongo. And Côte d’Ivoire benefited from continued openings in its private broadcasting market, as well as a reduction in attacks and harassment against the press, which came despite the potential for election-related tensions. Togo also showed some gains in an election year, especially regarding opposition candidates’ access to state media and journalists’ ability to cover the campaigns safely. However, those gains were tempered by the reintroduction of prison terms for publishing false news.
States and Vigilantes Muzzle Controversial Speech
Journalists and commentators across much of South and Southeast Asia faced threats and deadly violence for raising controversial topics during 2015. Making matters worse, the region’s governments tended to ban and prosecute discussion of such issues rather than protecting those who dared to address them.
Extremists in Bangladesh murdered at least four bloggers and a publisher who had produced content that was critical of religious fundamentalism. Many other writers, after being threatened or injured in similar attacks, felt compelled to go silent, relocate, or flee the country. Meanwhile, the authorities temporarily blocked social media on security grounds, allegedly forced the suspension of a popular political talk show, and threatened dozens of people with contempt of court charges for signing a letter in support of a British journalist who had been convicted on similar charges in late 2014. The government also reportedly pressured private companies to withdraw advertising from two critical newspapers; in early 2016 the papers’ editors faced multiple charges of sedition, defamation, and “hurting religious sentiment.”
In India, among other killings, one journalist was burned to death by police after he accused an Uttar Pradesh government minister of corruption. Separately, Indian officials banned a documentary film on the contentious problem of violence against women in the country, and temporarily suspended broadcasts of Al-Jazeera English because the station showed a map that did not match the government’s position on Kashmir.
The Vietnamese authorities released a number of jailed bloggers and journalists in 2015, before and after the Communist Party leader’s visit to Washington in July. However, detentions of others continued during the year, as did physical assaults. Prominent bloggers were brutally beaten by thugs or plainclothes police after writing on issues including territorial disputes with China and a controversial tree-removal plan in Hanoi.
The government of Malaysia—on the defensive over a massive corruption scandal—made extensive use of sedition charges to tamp down dissent, in one case prosecuting a political cartoonist for a series of tweets. In all, at least 91 people were charged, arrested, or investigated under the sedition law during 2015, according to Amnesty International. In Maldives, the government repeatedly invoked national security in attempts to intimidate critical news outlets, and deported the crew of a German broadcaster that was investigating the country’s volatile political and security situation.
Unlike its neighbors, Sri Lanka experienced a marked improvement in press freedom conditions after a new government took power in early 2015. Journalists faced fewer threats and attacks than in previous years, investigations into past violence made progress, a number of websites were unblocked, and officials moved toward the adoption of a right to information bill.
Systemic Control and Prison Terms for Journalists
Having already destroyed most platforms for dissent, several repressive regimes in Eurasia adopted a two-pronged approach toward the media in 2015: deepening systemic controls on the flow of information while making an example of the few independent journalists who continued to operate.
Russia, an innovator of modern state propaganda, expanded efforts to tightly control the news for domestic audiences and manipulate the information landscapes of several geopolitically significant neighbors, including Ukraine, Moldova, and the Baltic and Central Asian states. Domestically, the Russian government reoriented the focus of its misinformation machine from Ukraine to President Vladimir Putin’s newest foreign exploit, the military intervention in Syria. The promotion of government policies and messages became especially important amid growing economic hardship in Russia, and Kremlin-friendly media attempted to direct public discontent toward the United States and Europe, accusing them of exacerbating Russia’s economic troubles and the security situation in Syria. At the same time, authorities continued to exert pressure on the small space left for free expression, particularly targeting bloggers and journalists for their online publications. The regional Siberian broadcaster TV-2, having previously escaped the Kremlin’s cooptation of the television sector, closed in February 2015 after the expiration of its license, which was transferred to a state broadcaster.
Authorities in Azerbaijan not only tightened legislative restrictions on media in 2015, but also targeted individual journalists for legal and extralegal persecution. The staff of the online station Meydan TV faced administrative and physical harassment by officials throughout the year, as did members of their families. Spurious criminal cases against several reporters culminated in alarmingly lengthy prison terms, while other journalists were victims of violent attacks. Rasim Aliyev, an independent reporter and human rights activist, died in August after being brutally beaten by unidentified assailants. The authorities released several journalists and bloggers along with other political prisoners in March 2016, but prominent journalist Khadija Ismayilova remains behind bars, and the government’s hostile policies toward critical media show no signs of genuine change.
The government of Tajikistan took steps to make the state press agency the primary conduit for official information. And in a case that stretched the limits of absurdity, Tajik authorities sentenced Amindzhon Gulmurodzoda to two years in prison for forgery, claiming that the journalist had falsified his birth records in 1989—when he was five or six years old.
Physical Threats and Political Pressure
Press freedom in Mexico remained under extreme pressure due to violent attacks on journalists by criminal gangs and a pattern of impunity for the perpetrators. Federal agencies tasked with protecting threatened journalists and investigating crimes against the media failed to function effectively, partly due to a lack of resources. Freedom of expression advocates also expressed concern about new regulations that authorized expansive government surveillance powers under a 2014 telecommunications law.
Mexico was not the only country in the region suffering from serious violence against journalists. Threats from organized crime, corrupt officials, and abusive security forces were a problem in much of Central America, and at least six journalists were murdered in Brazil, where those working in rural sections of the country are particularly vulnerable. Brazil is regarded today as one of the most dangerous democracies for journalists to work in.
In other Latin American countries, the main source of pressure on media independence was the government. Enforcement of Ecuador’s 2013 Communication Law, which enabled more intrusive media regulation, continued to threaten freedom of expression and added to a hostile environment characterized by self-censorship, intimidation, and legal sanctions. The media regulator issued scores of fines and other administrative sanctions against various outlets, sometimes interfering directly in the details of their reporting on public officials.
Journalists in Nicaragua were subjected to rough treatment by police and others while covering demonstrations, and encountered obstruction when attempting to gain information on a new interoceanic canal project. The television sector remains dominated by a duopoly that tends to favor the government, and critics have argued that regulatory decisions are politically motivated or arbitrary, as with the abrupt 2015 closure of radio station Voz de Mujer.
In Argentina, long-standing antagonism between the government and the conservative press looked set to change after right-leaning candidate Mauricio Macri replaced incumbent president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in December. However, Macri immediately moved to undercut Kirchner’s 2009 Media Law, issuing a decree that transferred oversight powers of the two regulatory agencies created under that law to his newly formed National Agency of Telecommunications. This step prompted some observers to question the new administration's commitment to ensuring impartial regulatory enforcement.
In the United States, the media played a complicated role in an unusually crass, divisive, and intense campaign for the 2016 presidential election. The leading Republican candidate, Donald Trump, made criticism of individual journalists and outlets a major focus of his appeal, and used outrageous social-media comments to attract and divert traditional media coverage. At times he has even taunted the media industry with economic incentives, citing the effects of his appearances—or refusals to appear—on broadcasters’ viewership and revenue.
Security Concerns Fuel Censorship, Self-Censorship
Even in Middle Eastern countries without armed conflicts, concerns about terrorist attacks or military operations abroad motivated crackdowns on critical reporting and commentary as well as self-censorship on the part of journalists and social-media users.
In Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for example, the authorities restricted critical or independent coverage of the war in Yemen, in part by controlling access to the border area. Observers also noted a tendency among media outlets and online commentators to avoid criticism of the Saudi-led military campaign.
In Tunisia, which suffered multiple terrorist attacks during 2015, a journalist faced terrorism charges for refusing to disclose the source of a photograph related to one attack, and a blogger was jailed for defaming the military. Journalists faced greater police aggression while attempting to report on the aftermath of terrorist violence, and some outlets displayed a closer alignment with the government on security issues.
The Iranian government attempted to shape domestic media coverage of the international agreement on its nuclear program. The Supreme National Security Council instructed media outlets to praise Iran’s team of negotiators and to avoid any talk of “a rift” between top officials. The directive targeted hard-liners who have been highly critical of the negotiations—a shift from the pressure typically exerted on journalists who support President Hassan Rouhani’s reformist policies. However, hard-line elements continued to show their strength in other ways. The intelligence division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps arrested several journalists late in the year for alleged involvement in an “infiltration network” serving hostile foreign countries.
Police Interference, Violence Amid Refugee Crisis
Violence and the refugee crisis dominated the news in Europe in 2015, but they also affected how news could be covered. While not as dramatic as the Charlie Hebdo murders, attacks against journalists by various perpetrators in the Western Balkans contributed to an overall decline in media freedom there. In Serbia, multiple journalists suffered physical assaults, contributing to heightened self-censorship across the media sector. Attacks and death threats in Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina also raised concerns, with numerous violations committed against reporters who were investigating government corruption. Serious questions remain about whether these countries’ governments are genuine in their stated commitments to European norms for media freedom and independence.
In Turkey, the government took advantage of real and perceived security threats to intensify its crackdown on the media. Authorities continued to use terrorism-related laws to arrest critical journalists, censor online outlets, and deport foreign correspondents—usually in connection with the Kurdish insurgency, the conflict in Syria, or the Gülen movement.
The massive influx of migrants to Europe indirectly resulted in a variety of limitations on journalistic freedom. The most prominent case was in Hungary, where police attacked at least seven foreign journalists who were attempting to report on violent clashes between riot officers and migrants arriving at the country’s southern border. However, the authorities took other steps to limit journalists’ access to sites related to migrants and refugees, and the public media supported the government’s hostile stance toward them. In Austria, journalists reporting on the challenges posed by the migrants’ presence faced obstacles in several separate instances, revealing the government’s unease at allowing unhampered coverage of the situation. A series of attacks in Germany were attributed to far-right groups, which have been gaining strength in opposition to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s relatively welcoming policies toward refugees. The nearly 30 attacks against journalists in Germany in 2015 ranged from death threats to physical violence at right-wing demonstrations.
Over the past 10 years, Europe as a whole has suffered the largest drop in press freedom of any region in the Freedom of the Press report. This has been driven in part by weakened European economies and shrinking advertising revenues, which have led to layoffs, closure of outlets, and further concentration of media ownership. Other contributing factors include new laws restricting media activity, and increases in violence against and intimidation of journalists in retaliation for their reporting.
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