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Freedom House interview: Press freedom declines drastically

Freedom House's 2015 press freedom report shows journalists around the world face mounting restrictions as well as grave threats to their lives. Jennifer Dunham from Freedom House talks about the findings.

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Syria: still one of the most dangerous places for journalists

“Freedom of the Press 2015: Harsh Laws and Violence Drive Global Decline” is the latest edition of the annual report published annually by Freedom House, a US-based democracy watchdog.

This year's report, which examines 199 countries and territories, found only one in seven people around the world live in countries with a free press. Overall, global press freedom is at its lowest rate in more than 10 years, with the Middle East and North Africa showing the biggest fall.

DW Akademie spoke to Jennifer Dunham, the Freedom of the Press project manager.

DW Akademie: The Freedom of the Press 2015 report is quite a sobering read. Let us, however, first talk about the good news before we discuss the bad – where do you see positive trends in media freedom?

Jennifer Dunham: One of the biggest improvements was in Tunisia, which continues to be the success story of the Arab Spring. Tunisia sustained its gains scoring 48 points in the latest report, whereas it scored 85 points in 2011 just after the uprising – the lower the score, the more press freedom. We have seen backsliding in other Arab Spring countries, for example, in Egypt, which has fallen from 68 points last year to 73 this year.

But we don’t see too many positive trends this year: our findings were mainly negative. The global average score is at its lowest level for more than a decade and with the exception of sub-Saharan Africa, we saw a decline in all the world’s regions.


What contributed to the improvements in Africa?

One micro change that we saw in recent years was the opening of the broadcast space to private actors in a number of African countries, including licenses of private stations in previously closed environments such as the Ivory Coast or Togo. Other significant improvements in sub-Saharan Africa occurred in environments that were previously very restricted such as Guinea-Bissau, Central African Republic, Zimbabwe or Somalia. Basically, what’s happening in these countries is that we are seeing a bad environment get a little better. In cases like Zimbabwe, the government is being less overtly oppressive but they are still maintaining a very tight control over the media environment.


Is digital media helping open up opportunities?

Yes, I think digital media give people access to more forms of news sources via mobile phones and satellite TV. Internet penetration rates are still low but the mobile phone sector is growing and more people presumably access the internet via mobile phones in Africa than via traditional computers. Also, in Africa, a lot of countries, with the exception possibly of Ethiopia, haven’t really figured out how to clamp down on the online space yet. Ethiopia is actually often overlooked by Western governments and is kind of seen as a good example of democracy but it is really one of the worst press freedom offenders in Africa. It ranked 180 out of the 199 countries in the report. Ethiopia uses an anti-terror law to continually arrest journalists. Last year, it arrested members of the Zone 9 blogging collective and they are still imprisoned awaiting trial.


Media workers have been subject to outrageous physical assaults in the past year…

We have seen certain areas of the world that are almost off-limits to journalists. The most obvious examples are Syria and Iraq, where we saw very high profile murders of journalists. Basically, these countries have become no-go-areas for all but citizen journalists. Kind of paradoxically in a world where more and more information is available, certain areas of the world just aren’t accessible to journalists. This also applies, for example, to areas in north-eastern Nigeria where Boko Haram is active; parts of China, such as Tibet; parts of Myanmar or parts of Ukraine.


In the report, Freedom House discusses the increased use of restrictive laws. Can you talk about that?

Several governments use the threat of terrorist attacks as an excuse to clamp down on critical reporting. Terrorism is a very real threat and even in the US, the government is very reluctant to give information to reporters about national security issues. Democratic governments should be careful about using secrecy or security grounds as a reason to limit access to information because other countries can point to them when trying to find a pretext for arresting journalists for violating a security law or anti-terror law.


Are there specific countries that have tightened their laws?

We saw some legal efforts to control the media in Turkey, South Africa and Kenya, for example. In South Africa, the authorities extended their use of the National Key Points Act, which is an apartheid-era law that can designate important sites or institutions as off-limits. They use that provision to limit investigative reporting on those sites.

In Kenya, the government passed a very draconian anti-terror law in the wake of attacks by the Islamic militant group al-Shabab, although key aspects were struck down by the High Court. This is one encouraging example of courts pushing back against encroachments of press freedom.


What other means of media control did you observe?

We have seen encroachments by governments either on public broadcasters or on private media owners. The government puts pressure on media owners either through advertising or by forming partnerships with the owner and then pressuring them to change their editorial line to make it more favorable to the government. That’s something that we saw for example in Hungary, where the environment has gotten a lot worse in the past few years.


There are concerns about surveillance of electronic communication, also in a number of countries with established democracies. Why is spying a problem for media freedom?

Because journalists are never sure who is listening to their calls or who are recording the phone numbers they call or call them. This is a key issue for protection of sources, which is very important for journalists – especially if they are going to write a good story with lot of sources that have to stay anonymous. Nowadays journalists basically assume that governments can listen to anything that they say. That is very disturbing. I think that journalists are aware that governments might be listening and that they have taken steps that they haven’t in the past to protect their sources even more.


Which other notable developments have there been since the last report?

Harassment of women journalists on social media is becoming an increasing problem. Women journalists have always operated in a more difficult environment because they have to deal with cultural issues in certain countries where, for instance, men don’t want to be interviewed by a woman journalist. But this year we have seen examples of reporters who told us anecdotes of being threatened or sexually harassed on Twitter. This is very personal. This can cast a chill over the work that they do. There is rising awareness of the issue but it is definitely something that should be watched out for.

One other issue in 2014 was the impact of the Ebola crisis on media freedom in West Africa. The three different countries dealt differently with the balance between freedom of expression and managing this horrible crisis, although it is hard to criticize any country because it just was a massive crisis. In Guinea and Sierra Leone you didn’t see as many restrictions as in Liberia, where there were some disturbing efforts by the government to limit reporting on the scale of the problem and possibly cover up some failings.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Jennifer Dunham is the project manager of Freedom of the Press and Freedom in the World at Freedom House. A specialist on global press freedom trends, she regularly briefs government officials, donors and the media on the findings of the Freedom of the Press report and general media freedom issues. She also authors country reports, essays and blog posts for several Freedom House publications on issues ranging from press freedom to governance in sub-Saharan Africa. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history-sociology from Columbia University and a master’s degree in international relations from New York University.

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