Picture for media freedom increasingly bleak

Picture for media freedom increasingly bleak
Areas marked in black have the worst levels of press freedom
By bne IntelliNews April 26, 2017

Turkey continued its dramatic fall on Reporters Without Borders’ latest World Press Freedom Index, which documents an alarming fall in media freedom in many countries around the world. Also known as Reporters sans frontieres or RSF, the media watchdog highlights that some Eurasian countries maintain some of the most repressive regimes for journalists globally.

The annually published index ranks 180 countries according to the level of freedom experienced by journalists. Rankings are based on the journalism watchdog’s evaluation of pluralism, independence of the media, quality of legislative framework and safety of journalists in each country. This year saw the situation worsen in nearly two thirds of the countries on the index.

On the 2017 index, Turkey fell a further four places to 155th, after dropping by a total of 57 places in the past 12 years.

“The coup attempt in July 2016 swept aside the last restraints on the government in its war against critical media,” says the report. “The ensuing state of emergency has allowed the authorities to disband dozens of media outlets at the stroke of a pen, month after month, reducing pluralism to a handful of low-circulation newspapers.”

Over 100 journalists have been detained without trial, causing RSF to describe the country as “the world’s biggest prison for media professionals". Further deterioration in media freedom in the country may follow, after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent referendum, which is set to give the presidency sweeping new powers. 

Turkey is the lowest ranked country in Europe by a considerable margin, but two other countries - Bulgaria and Macedonia - sit alongside Turkey in the “Difficult Situation” category (the second-worst of the five defined by RSF), even though both made marginal improvements in their rankings on the 2017 index. 

Worst in Europe

Media freedom has declined across the Southeast Europe region, but the erosion of the rule of law has been most visible in EU-aspiring Macedonia, according to RSF. Macedonia ranked 111st in 2017, rising from 118th position a year ago as other countries dropped but barely altering its score.

“Defamation was removed from the criminal code in 2012, but prosecutions have been replaced by civil actions with the possibility of heavy fines and jail terms for reporters and media owners,” said the report. 

RSF mentioned cases of threats, violence, harassment, and intimidation of journalists during political demonstrations in 2016, but said that of those responsible, few were charged.

According to the organisation, political instability in Macedonia which has been without a government for several months affects the work of journalists, and pressure from the ruling conservative VMRO-DPMNE party has led some media outlets to censor themselves. RSF reported in March about attacks against Macedonian journalists during demonstrations in Skopje and other cities by supporters of VMRO-DPMNE.

Bulgaria also moved up on the ranking, but its score assigned by RSF deteriorated slightly and it remained the lowest ranked EU country. This was attributed by RSF to “an environment dominated by corruption and collusion between media, politicians, and oligarchs”. There is now speculation that media freedom in Bulgaria could deteriorate further as international owners exit the country. 

Swedish media group MTG and the corporation CME could both quit Bulgaria, as reported by Capital weekly. They own the country’s two most popular groups of TV channels – Nova TV and bTV, respectively.

MTG is already negotiating with Nova TV CEO and minority (5%) shareholder, Frenchman Didier Stoessel. The price for Nova TV and a portfolio of popular websites is expected to exceed €100mn, and there are fears that local politically-connected oligarchs may become involved in the deal one way or another.

Furthermore, according to Capital, it is also likely that broadcaster bTV will be put up for sale in the near future. bTV’s owner CME was acquired by Time Warner, which in turn is merging with AT&T, and the new owner may not be interested in its Eastern European assets. CME has already advised two Bulgarian companies that a potential sale may take place after the completion of the Time Warner – AT&T merger.

But for the most part, the CEE countries are a bright spot among the wider region of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, with the the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia all in the second-best category of “Satisfactory Situation”. From the region only Estonia was rated as having a “Good Situation” which placed it above many West European countries. 

The remaining CEE countries were in the third category of “Noticeable Problem”, alongside Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine. 

Last of the last 

Globally, RSF warns of an increase in the number of countries (coloured black on the map) where the media freedom situation is “Very Bad”. 21 countries now fall into this category, including Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. 

Turkmenistan is considered one of the “last of the last” alongside Eritrea and North Korea. “The state has total control over the media and continues to intensify its harassment of the few remaining correspondents of foreign-based independent media, who are forced to work clandestinely,” says the report. “The government has continued its campaign to remove all satellite dishes, denying the public of one of its last chances to access freely reported news.” 

The situation is not much better in Uzbekistan, which fell three places to 169th, and was described by RSF as a “model of institutionalised censorship”. On a more optimistic note, however, it adds “the new president’s behaviour has raised hopes of improvement after the widespread use of torture under his predecessor.”

Meanwhile in Azerbaijan, ranked 162nd, the RSF appealed in 2016 to the authorities to stop curtailing media freedom after several arrests and the blocking of two leading news websites. 

While not among the worst placed countries, Russia was still among the lowest fifth of the index at 148th place. 

Erosion of democracy 

But while authoritarian regimes in Asia, Africa and the Middle East dominated the bottom of the index, RSF also warned of the increasing threats of “post-truth, propaganda, and suppression of freedoms”, which it found were especially prevalent in democracies.

This contributed to the fall of established democracies in the UK and the US on the index. 

“Donald Trump’s rise to power in the US and the Brexit campaign in the UK 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,” the report says, also noting the erosion of democracy and with it press freedom in the self-styled “illiberal democracy” of Hungary, and in Poland.