The glory days of global press freedom appear to be long past, with a Washington-based freedom watchdog organization finding that a retrenchment of press freedoms continued in 2009.
In its annual report on press freedom in the world, Freedom House finds an overall decline for the eighth year in a row – with noticeably negative movement in China, the Middle East, and parts of Latin America.
The trend is particularly worrying, advocates say, because press freedom often acts as a kind of bellwether of the direction an array of political and social freedoms are taking.
“What we’re seeing affecting the press is part of a general trend in freedom around the world,” says Karin Deutsch Karleker, managing editor of the Freedom House global press freedom study. “It’s often press freedom that is the first to come under attack, and then that spreads to other freedoms more generally.”
Press freedoms grew when the Berlin Wall fell
Press freedom reached new heights in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and not just in states of the former Soviet Union that were expanding freedoms generally. The uptick was felt in parts of Africa and Asia as well, where new governments scuttled old media restrictions and opened new avenues of expression.
So-called “new media” including the Internet were also part of the rise in press freedom.
But now the general decline in global press freedom also includes measures taken to rein in the Internet and cyberspace, as governments catch up with new technologies, media experts say.
“The new media have been quite an important part of expanding freedom and then more recently the trend of its retraction, especially in countries where the traditional media were quite limited,’ says Ms. Karleker. “The new media were an opportunity for a more open space for expression, but now we’re seeing growing efforts to restrict that space.”
The picture is not all dark. The Freedom House report finds some bright spots for press freedom, especially in South Asia – notably Bangladesh and the Maldives. India, East Timor, and Indonesia also registered improvements.
“We find that when new governments come in” – the case of Bangladesh and the Maldives – “that can be the opportunity for the reform of press legislation and the occasion for a sudden improvement in a country’s treatment of the press,” Karleker says.
China the 'poorest performer'
On the other hand, Asia continues to be the site of some of the world’s least-free countries (including press freedom) like Burma and North Korea. And China has the distinction in the Freedom House study of being the world’s largest “poor performer” concerning press freedom.
One of the most alarming deteriorations the study found was in Mexico – not as a result of government measures but rather because of a lack of government action: specifically, against the violence threatening Mexican journalists.
The Freedom House report takes note of an accelerating trend of measures aimed at reining in the Internet. The international spotlight has been focused on China and its arm-wrestling with Google. But Karleker says government action aimed at limiting uses of the Internet range from Russian efforts to curtail bloggers to Venezuela’s moves against websites.
“In the Middle East the Internet had become the most open source of information,” she says. “But Egypt, where there’s a ferocious backlash against independent voices and bloggers, is just one example of what’s going on in the region.”