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On World Press Freedom Day, Journalists Increasingly Face Threats

Access to free and fair media is sharply declining all over the world 

Global press freedom in 2014 was at its lowest point in over 10 years, as the world struggles with a growing terrorist threat as well as political and humanitarian crises across the globe. A Freedom House report found only 14 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with a free press, where journalists can safely report on politics, government intrusion into media operations is minimal, and the press doesn’t have large legal or economic constraints.  

Sunday is U.N. World Press Freedom Day, a chance for the global community to recognize the sacrifices made by journalists while trying to do their jobs. Among the most high-profile incidents illustrating threats faced by members of the press last year were the gruesome beheadings of American freelance journalist James Foley and American-Israeli journalist Steven Sotloff by the Islamic State group. Both were kidnapped in Syria, a country whose civil war has greatly endangered the ability of the press to move about safely and dispatch information.  b[READ: Brutal Baltimore Beatings Worry Press Advocates] 

The Freedom House Freedom of the Press 2015 Report found that only eight countries saw significant improvements in 2014, while 18 countries had significant declines – the highest number in seven years. These countries – among them Libya, Hong Kong, Iceland, South Sudan, Botswana, Peru and Turkey – showed that restrictive press conditions are not confined to one area of the world, or in countries where there is violent conflict.

Freedom House assessed the press freedom in 199 countries and territories and classified more countries as “not free” than ”free”: 65 are ”not free,” while 63 are ”free.” Seventy-one countries were classified as “partly free.” Forty-four percent of the world’s population lives in a place without a free press.

Major challenges to journalists included the increasing frequency of laws restricting the freedom of the press as well as a growing inability of journalists to physically access sites of protest and conflict.  [ALSO: International Women’s Day: Inequality in Charts] 

Belarus, Crimea, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were the 10 countries with the worst rankings. Crimea, which was assessed independently for the first time after it was annexed by Russia last year, and Syria were new to this “Worst of the Worst” list. Independent media either don’t exist or are hardly able to conduct their activities in these countries, and citizens do not have regular access to unbiased journalism. Iran has long been one of the world’s most frequent jailers of journalists. Officials there have held Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian since July 2014, barely giving him access to legal representation.

In an effort to raise awareness of the dangers faced by journalists around the world, last week the U.S. State Department launched its fourth annual “Free the Press” campaign, which highlighted daily journalists and outlets that have been targeted because of their commitment to journalism. During the daily press briefing and an online campaign, the State Department highlighted cases of journalists in China, Syria, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Russian-occupied Crimea, Maldives, Azerbaijan and Swaziland who have been censored, imprisoned or disappeared because of their reporting on sensitive issues.

Regionally, the Middle East has the largest portion of countries ranked “not free,” with 93 percent of the population residing in countries without a free press. Israel is the region’s only “free” country, while 15 countries are “not free” and three are ”partly free.” Egypt and Libya, which had both dramatically improved after the Arab Spring in 2011, have both seen freedoms decline over the past several years. The civil war in Syria has impacted the ability of journalists in that country as well as in Iraq to do their jobs.

Eighty-two percent of Eurasia’s population lives in a country ranked “not free,” and no countries in the region were ranked “free.” Russia saw a combination of legislative changes that curtailed press freedoms as well as an increase in government propaganda, particularly related to the invasion of Ukraine. That country’s score actually improved, moving from “not free” to “partly free” after authoritarian president Viktor Yanukovich was ousted from office.

The report downgraded U.S. press freedom, classified as “free,” by one point due to the targeting of and violence against journalists during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, last year. It also expressed concern over restrictions on access to government officials and information and over the prosecution of leakers. President Barack Obama has prosecuted leak cases eight times, more than all previous presidents combined. By Teresa Welsh May 3, 2015 | 12:01 a.m. EDT

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