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2017 World Press Freedom Index – tipping point

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The 2017 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reflects a world in which attacks on the media have become commonplace and strongmen are on the rise. We have reached the age of post-truth, propaganda, and suppression of freedoms – especially in democracies.

I. Democracies falling, advent of strongmen

RSF’s latest World Press Freedom Index highlights the danger of a tipping point in the state of media freedom, especially in leading democratic countries. (Read our analysis entitled Journalism weakened by democracy’s erosion.) Democracies began falling in the Index in preceding years and now, more than ever, nothing seems to be checking that fall.

The obsession with surveillance and violations of the right to the confidentiality of sources have contributed to the continuing decline of many countries previously regarded as virtuous. This includes the United States (down 2 places at 43rd), the United Kingdom (down 2 at 40th), Chile (down 2 at 33rd), and New Zealand (down 8 at 13th).

Donald Trump’s rise to power in the United States and the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom were marked by high-profile media bashing, a highly toxic anti-media discourse that drove the world into a new era of post-truth, disinformation, and fake news.

Media freedom has retreated wherever the authoritarian strongman model has triumphed. Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Poland (54th) lost seven places in the 2017 Index. After turning public radio and TV stations into propaganda tools, the Polish government set about trying to financially throttle independent newspapers that were opposed to its reforms.

Viktor Orbán’s Hungary (71st) has fallen four places. John Magufuli’s Tanzania (83rd) has fallen 12. After the failed coup against Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey (down 4 at 155th) swung over into the authoritarian regime camp and now distinguishes itself as the world’s biggest prison for media professionals. Vladimir Putin’s Russia remains firmly entrenched in the bottom fifth of the Index at 148th.

“The rate at which democracies are approaching the tipping point is alarming for all those who understand that, if media freedom is not secure, then none of the other freedoms can be guaranteed,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Where will this downward spiral take us?”

II. Norway first, North Korea last

In the emerging new world of media control, even the top-ranked Nordic countries are slipping down the Index. After six years at the top, Finland (down 2 at 3rd) has surrendered its No. 1 position due to political pressure and conflicts of interests. The top spot has been taken by Norway (up 2 at 1st), which is not a European Union member. This is a blow for the European model. Sweden has risen six places to take 2nd position. Journalists continue to be threatened in Sweden but the authorities sent a positive signal in the past year by convicting several of those responsible. The cooperation between the police and certain media outlets and journalists’ unions was also seen as a step forward in combatting the threats.

At the other end of the Index, Eritrea (179th) has surrendered last place to North Korea for the first time since 2007, after allowing closely-monitored foreign media crews into the country. North Korea (180th) continues to keep its population in ignorance and terror – even listening to a foreign radio broadcast can lead to a spell in a concentration camp. The Index’s bottom five also include Turkmenistan (178th), one of the world’s most repressive and self-isolated dictatorships, which keeps increasing its persecution of journalists, and Syria (177th), riven by a never-ending war and still the deadliest country for journalists, who are targeted by both its ruthless dictator and Jihadi rebels. (See our analysis entitled 2017 Press Freedom Index – ever darker world map.)

MEDIA FREEDOM NEVER SO THREATENED

Media freedom has never been so threatened and RSF’s “global indicator” has never been so high (3872). This measure of the overall level of media freedom constraints and violations worldwide has risen 14% in the span of five years. In the past year, nearly two thirds (62.2%) of the countries measured* have registered a deterioration in their situation, while the number of countries where the media freedom situation was “good” or “fairly good” fell by 2.3%.

The Middle East and North Africa region, which has ongoing wars in Yemen (down 4 at 166th) as well as Syria, continues to be the world’s most difficult and dangerous region for journalists. Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the second worst region, does not lag far behind. Nearly two third of its countries are ranked below or around the 150th mark in the Index. In addition to Turkey’s downward spiral, 2016 was marked by a clampdown on independent media in Russia, while the despots in such former Soviet republics as Tajikistan (149th), Turkmenistan (178th), and Azerbaijan (162nd) perfected their systems of control and repression.

The Asia-Pacific region is the third worst violator overall but holds many of the worst kinds of records. Two of its countries, China (176th) and Vietnam (175th), are the world’s biggest prisons for journalists and bloggers. It has some of the most dangerous countries for journalists: Pakistan (139th), Philippines (127th) and Bangladesh (146th). It also has the biggest number of “press freedom predators” at the head of the world’s worst dictatorships, including China, North Korea (180th), and Laos (170th), which are news and information black holes.

Africa comes next, where the Internet is now routinely disconnected at election time and during major protests. More than five points separate then the African region from the Americas, where Cuba (down 2 at 173rd) is the only country in the black (i.e. “very bad”) zone of the Index, which is otherwise reserved for the worst dictatorships and authoritarian regimes of Asia and the Middle East.

Finally, the European Union and Balkans region continues to be the one where the media are freest, although its regional indicator (of the overall level of constraints and violations) registered the biggest increase in the past year: +3.8%. The differences in regional indicator change over the past five years are particularly noticeable. The European Union and Balkans indicator rose 17.5% over the past five years. During the same period, the Asia-Pacific indicator increased by only 0.9%.

III. Rises, falls, and illusory improvements

Nicaragua (down 17 at 92nd) distinguished itself in 2017 by falling further than any other country on the Index. For the independent and opposition media, President Daniel Ortega’s controversial re-election was marked by many cases of censorship, intimidation, harassment, and arbitrary arrest. Tanzania (down 12 at 83rd), where President John “Bulldozer” Magufuli keeps tightening his grip on the media, also suffered a significant fall.

Amid all the decline, rises in two countries seem particularly promising and will hopefully continue. After ridding itself of its autocratic president, Gambia (up 2 at 143rd) has rediscovered uncensored newspapers and is planning to amend legislation that is restrictive for the media. The historic peace accord in Colombia (up 5 at 129th) has ended a 52-year armed conflict that was a source of censorship and violence against the media. No journalists were killed in 2016, making it the first time in seven years that journalists survived their work.

However, other sizeable jumps in the 2017 Index are probably deceptive. Italy (52nd) has risen 25 places after acquitting several journalists including the two Italian journalists who were tried in the VatiLeaks 2 case. But it continues to be one of the European countries where the most journalists are threatened by organized crime.

France has risen six places to 39th position but it was simply recovering from the exceptional fall it suffered in the 2016 Index because of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It is a country where journalists struggle to defend their independence in an increasingly violent and hostile environment. Excepting the 2016 Index, France’s latest score (22.24) is its worst since 2013, a decline that is due inter alia to problems arising from businessmen using the media as a source of influence. RSF welcomed a new law on media independence but it did not suffice to significantly modify the situation.

In Asia, the Philippines (127th) rose 11 places, partly because of a fall in the number of journalists killed in 2016, but the insults and open threats against the media by President Rodrigo Duterte, another new strongman, do not bode well.

Evolution in France’s score

Published annually by RSF since 2002, the World Press Freedom Index measures the level of media freedom in 180 countries, including the level of pluralism, media independence, and respect for the safety and freedom of journalists. The 2017 Index takes account of violations that took place between January 1st and December 31stof 2016.

The global indicator and the regional indicators are calculated based on the scores assigned to each country. The country scores are calculated from the answers to a questionnaire in 20 languages that is completed by experts throughout the world, supported by a qualitative analysis. The scores and indicators measure the level of constraints and violations, so the higher the figure, the worse the situation. Because of growing awareness of the Index, it is an extremely useful and increasingly influential advocacy tool.

* The term “country” is used in its ordinary sense, without any special political meaning or allusion to certain territories.

Media

Somali journalist arrested, held without charge

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Nairobi, February 09, 2018–Somali authorities should immediately release Sabir Abdulkadir Warsame, a broadcast journalist with the privately owned Somali Cable TV, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Sabir was arrested by regional security forces in the semi-autonomous state of Jubbaland on February 8 and has been held without charge in the state capital of Kismayo, according to a report by the Voice of America and Hassan Adde, general director of Somali Cable TV who spoke to CPJ.

Hassan told CPJ that, at the time of his arrest, Sabir was interviewing members of the public about the first anniversary of the election of Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmajo).

“Arresting and detaining Sabir Abdulkadir for simply doing his job as a journalist is outrageous,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal in New York. “He should be immediately released without charge and free to continue reporting in the public interest.”

Speaking to CPJ through a translator, Jubbaland information minister Abdinur Ali Adan said that he had been informed of Sabir’s arrest. He said that the journalist was in “safe hands” and would be produced in court tomorrow morning, though he said he did not have more information about the court proceedings.

While shooting the interviews, the journalist unintentionally filmed a vehicle carrying charcoal, triggering his arrest, according to Sabir’s colleague who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. Charcoal export from Somalia is illegal, according to a 2012 UN Security Council resolution aimed at cutting funding for al-Shabaab.

Hassan told CPJ that he did not know that the journalist had captured any footage of a vehicle ferrying charcoal.

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KENYA

Kenya Crackdown on Media, Opposition Deepens

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WALL STREET JOURNAL — NAIROBI, Kenya—A standoff between Kenya’s government and the opposition has escalated, as a crackdown on the media deepens and police arrest several top opposition figures.
The political battle highlights how the fraught election in east Africa’s economic powerhouse and freest country is reverberating months later. The media has become collateral damage, as broadcasters forced off the air this week for transmitting an opposition event remained blocked despite a court order to reinstate them.

Western diplomats in Nairobi with knowledge of the situation said arrests of opposition figures could continue, and opposition leader Raila Odinga, a veteran firebrand revered by his supporters in the country’s West and coastal areas, could also be a target.

Mr. Odinga has refused to concede to President Uhuru Kenyatta after two elections plagued by procedural problems and scattered violence.

“While we were hoping that the country, after a bruising election season, could pull together, that seems a lost hope,” Murithi Mutiga, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said.

The opposition leader went ahead Tuesday with a symbolic “swearing in” ceremony at Nairobi’s central Uhuru Park despite government warnings that the move would be treason. In front of thousands of his supporters, Mr. Odinga declared himself “the people’s president,” in a move criticized by the U.S. and the African Union as unconstitutional and inflammatory.
The government designated Mr. Odinga’s political movement a “criminal organization,” though it said the political parties in the opposition coalition are not affected. A lawyer who was present at the “swearing in” alongside Mr Odinga was arrested Friday, after another lawyer and an opposition parliamentarian were taken into custody earlier in the week.

The government has blocked Kenya’s three main TV stations from broadcasting, saying that by airing the mock inauguration they were complicit in a plot that could have cost the lives of “thousands of Kenyans.” It offered no evidence to support its claims.

A judge on Thursday ordered the government to allow them to broadcast until their case challenging their shutdown goes ahead. The ruling was delayed by procedural obstacles but eventually served Friday, though the networks remained off air.

Heather Nauert, the spokesperson for the State Department, said the U.S. was “deeply concerned by the government’s action to shut down, intimidate, and restrict the media.”

Kenya’s relative press freedom, among other things, has distinguished it from many of its neighbors, Mr. Muriga noted.

“This is what sets the country apart from others on the continent, and as a consequence Kenya has become a hub for innovation and is regarded as a bellwether for other African democracies,” he said.

While the crackdown on the press and the arrests of opposition figures are garnering the government criticism, the opposition is looking weakened and fragmented, Mr. Muriga said.

Mr. Odinga lost an election in August last year, but the vote was annulled by the Kenyan Supreme Court on the grounds of wide-spread irregularities during tallying and transmission of the results. A second, repeat vote was held in late October; Mr. Odinga and his NASA coalition party boycotted that election, partly contributing to a very poor turnout of just over 30%.

Mr. Kenyatta won with 98% of the vote and was inaugurated for a second five-year term in November last year.

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KENYA

Tensions High in Kenya Amid Media Ban, Opposition Arrest

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NAIROBI — Political tensions continue to rise in Kenya as the government defied a court order to lift a ban on three independent media organizations. Authorities also arrested a key opposition ally in the wake of Raila Odinga’s self-inauguration Tuesday as the so-called “people’s president.”

Kenya’s three largest broadcasters remained off the air for a fourth day Friday despite the high court ruling the day before that the government must reverse the suspension. Authorities cut transmission for the media outlets Tuesday as they prepared live coverage of the opposition’s swearing-in event.

The Kenyan human rights activist behind the legal challenge, Okiya Omtata, attempted to serve the court papers to the government’s Communications Authority Friday.

“I was personally marked,” he told VOA, “and I was not allowed past the gate. I was told that they had instruction from above not to be allowed past the gate, nor the court order to be served. So what I did is I pinned it on the wall — a copy of the order, but they ripped it off.”

Omtata said he has no choice but to bring the matter back to the court Monday.

“It now clarifies issues for me,” he said. “Now I know what we are dealing with is not a failure to comprehend the law, but a deliberate move by the government to violate the Bill of Rights and the constitution of Kenya and to operate outside the consent of the law.”

The Communications Authority has not commented on the ban. Omtata said he was able to serve the remaining court papers addressed to the attorney general, interior minister, and minister of information, communication and technology.

The ruling Jubilee administration accuses the media of failing to heed its advice not to air Tuesday’ opposition swearing-in. In a statement released Wednesday, the day before the high court’s ruling, Interior Minister Fred Matiang’i said the stations will remain shut throughout ongoing investigations into alleged complicity in what he called an effort to subvert the government and spark violence.

In a statement Thursday, the U.S. State Department grave concern over what U.S. officials called “the government’s action to shut down, intimidate, and restrict the media” and Odinga’s self-inauguration.

Odinga has refused to accept the results of an October presidential run-off, which he boycotted. Incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta was declared the winner.

Murithi Mutiga, the International Crisis Group’s Kenya researcher, says the spat between the Kenyatta administration and the media will go on.

“He came to office and seems to have an axe to grind with the key element of the society including the media and civil society and that has continued and persisted,” said Mutiga. “We’ve seen media houses being denied advertising, which is a crucial source of revenue. We’ve seen continued attempts to legislate against the media. So I think, I think it will continue, they will continue to be a push and pull between the administration and the media.”

President Kenyatta gave a televised speech at the Kenya School of Government Friday. At the end, he gestured to the journalists, saying in Swahili, “Now why don’t you switch off your things, pack and go? Your work is over.”

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