There has been a “significant decline” in global freedom of expression in the last three years, driven by a rise in “strongman” politics and attacks on journalists, according to new research.
In 2017 alone a total of 78 journalists were killed and 326 were imprisoned. More than half of those behind bars are in Turkey, China and Egypt and the vast majority (97 per cent) are local reporters.
Tactics used to undermine media freedom range from verbal attacks, legal threats and imprisonment to physical attacks and murder, UK-based charity Article 19’s Expression Agenda Report, published today, states.
“However, the intention is the same – to silence journalists and create a climate of fear that discourages others from speaking out,” it adds.
“Journalists today face threats from a range of actors, including governments, organised criminals, business interests and religious fundamentalism.”
The report uses selected data from the Varieties of Democracy project, or V-Dem, to create a metric reflecting freedom of expression and information within a democracy.
The Expression Agenda, or XpA, metric uses data from 37 freedom of expression indicators across five main areas: media freedom, digital freedom, civic space, transparency and protection.
The report says media freedom saw the biggest decline across these areas last year, with the US, Poland and India all falling in this area.
In India alone, seven journalists were killed last year, with online smear campaigns against journalists and threats by Hindu nationalists contributing to a “climate of self-censorship”, the report says.
In Poland, state media has been moved under government control.
The report describes the decline of media freedom in the US as “one of the most worrying developments”.
American journalists’ ability to report has been “undermined by attacks, arrests, border stops, searches of devices, prosecution of whistleblowers and restrictions on the release of public information”, it says.
The “fake news” narrative propagated by Trump has also been seized upon by world leaders “to openly attack the media and close down scrutiny of their policies and actions,” the report adds.
“This situation has been made worse by the Trump administration’s open hostility to the media.”
There were 16 cases of journalists being killed with total or partial impunity over the 12 months to the end of December 2017. On average, 90 per cent of physical crimes against journalists go unpunished.
Article 19’s report said media freedom had declined in 48 countries from 2014 to 2017. The significant drop in overall freedom of expression over the past three years is part of a ten-year continuous trend, it said.
This has been matched by a rise in “strongman” politics, characterised by leaders such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pictured), Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.
Erdogan’s government has jailed 174 journalists are in prison and has “systematically destroyed the independent media” in the country, the report said.
Article 19 executive director Thomas Hughes said: “Our data shows that freedom of expression has been in decline for ten years and that this demise has accelerated significantly in the last three years.
“This is a global phenomenon with many violations happening in countries where freedom of expression has traditionally been protected.
“This report is a wake-up call about the precarious state of freedom of expression and how quickly it can be undermined by those who want to close down free speech, dissent and informed opposition.
“We call on governments and power-holders to look at the evidence of our report and commit to reversing this corrosive trend.”
Picture: AP Photo/Ali Unal