Even the United States has lost a little ground when it comes to press freedom because of secrecy and security issues. Recently, some new data has emerged on press freedom around the world and the picture is disappointing. Freedom House has released its 2014 data and reports a decline in press freedom around the world with an estimate of only one person in seven living in a country where political news and press freedoms are encouraged and robust. The Freedom House data is available here.
The Freedom House report indicates two reasons for the decline in press freedom: an increase in restrictive laws constraining the press typically justified on national security grounds, and the difficulty a journalist has reporting from a particular country. It is becoming more difficult for journalists to move around in order to properly report a story. Curiously, in this age of information explosion it is so difficult to get information firsthand.
As you might expect, there seems to be a correlation between increasing restrictions on press freedom and the political conditions of the country. Obviously those countries guilty of atrocities or engaged in war continue to see declines in press freedom (e.g., Syria, Sudan, Libya). A few other trends are noteworthy. (1) There seems to be an increasing distain for democratic standards. Authoritarian regimes used to cover themselves in the language of elections and human rights, now they blatantly flout democratic values and argue for the superiority of their own political conditions. (2) The escalation of terrorism is increasingly used to apply repressive measures under the guise of security. And the debate about how democracies should respond to terrorism is a legitimate one, but in the meantime more regimes are silencing dissidents and restraining the media. (3) What was once pretty extensive Internet freedom is beginning to fade. Censorship and surveillance are increasingly of more interest to governments than access. There is increased monitoring of online communication, even in the “freer” countries, such that places like South Korea increased monitoring and censorship, and even Israel imposed stricter constraints on social media pertaining to the Gaza Strip. (4) The percentage of countries that are classified as “free” stands at 46% which represents a small decline.
So! What are the top 10 (or bottom 10) worst countries or territories when it comes to press freedom?
The world’s 10 worst-rated countries and territories, with the lowest Freedom House scores were Belarus, Crimea, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Crimea and Syria joined the bottom-ranked cohort in 2014. Any sense of independent media is nonexistent in these countries or barely workable; the press is little more than a mouthpiece for the regime or so biased and restrictive that it barely qualifies as useful information. Iran continues to earn its place among the worst of the worst. Iran regularly monitors citizens and newspapers and jails journalists for the slightest criticism.
Democracies are currently struggling with the balance between freedom and control. The observation that authoritarians and terrorists can take advantage of the openness and tolerance of democratic societies is true enough. Some might even take it a cynical step further and suggest that these trends are no advertisement for democracy. But the report also highlights a few positive trends. There were citizen uprisings in Ukraine demanding increased press freedom, and ramped up pressures on the Chinese leadership to adhere more closely to democratic principles.
Democracies just have to wait out authoritarian regimes. Sooner or later their own people will challenge the regime or it will begin to stutter under its own oppression. But, clearly, it would be a mistake to think that democracies are weak in the face of authoritarianism because increased press freedom and access to information literally guarantee a bleak future for repressive political systems.