Even the torchbearers of press freedom lose their way

BY NUPUR BASU| IN Media Freedom | 03/05/2017
The World Press Freedom Index shows several European countries – model democracies - sliding in the rankings
NUPUR BASU reports


The United States, the United Kingdom and India - three countries that pride themselves on being vibrant democracies - have all gone down in the media freedom index according to the 2017 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

While India has fallen by three points to 136th position in 2017 from its earlier position of 133 in 2016, the USA has slid by two points to 43, compared to its previous ranking of 41. The UK has also dropped two positions to 40 from its previous ranking of 38 in 2016.

“The rate at which the democracies are approaching the tipping point is alarming for all those who understand that, if media freedom is not secure, then none of the other freedoms can be guaranteed,” said RSF’s Secretary-General Christophe Deloire, adding  “Where will this downward spiral take us?”

In a report titled “Journalism weakened by democracy’s erosion”  the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, published by RSF, says that “Violations of the freedom to inform are less and less the prerogative of authoritarian regimes and dictatorships. Once taken for granted, media freedom is proving to be increasingly fragile in democracies as well. In sickening statements, draconian laws, conflicts of interest, and even the use of physical violence, democratic governments are trampling on a freedom that should, in principle, be one of their leading performance indicators.”

The report points out: “In the span of just a year, the number of countries where the state of the media is considered “good” or “fairly good” has fallen by 2.3%’’. Countries regarded as model democracies are no exceptions. Canada (ranked 22nd out of 180 countries) has fallen four places in this year’s Index. Poland (54th) has fallen seven. New Zealand (13th) has fallen eight. Namibia (24th) has fallen seven.

“Media freedom’s erosion is particularly visible in the European democracies. Even the Nordic top performers that have traditionally topped the Index have dropped a few places - three in the case of the Netherlands and two in the case of Finland, which has lost its No. 1 position for the first time in six years. As regards the “indicator” of the overall level of media freedom violations in a region, Europe continues to have the lowest (i.e. “best”) indicator but it has risen significantly - by 17.5% in five years. In comparison, the Asia-Pacific region’s indicator rose by only 0.9% in the same period,” said the report.

In contrast to India, Pakistan has surprisingly improved its previous ranking by eight points to 139 this year from the previous 147 in 2016.

“The democracies that have traditionally regarded media freedom as one of the foundations on which they are built must continue to be a model for the rest of the world, and not the opposite”, said Deloire. “By eroding this fundamental freedom on the grounds of protecting their citizens, the democracies are in danger of losing their souls”.

On the UK, the report noted the disturbing moves against press freedom this year, from the seizure of a Syrian journalist’s passport, to the adoption of the most extreme surveillance legislation in UK history that could effectively serve as a death sentence for investigative journalism.

‘’Now an even bigger threat looms with an alarming proposal for a new Espionage Act that would make it easy to label journalists as “spies” and jail them for up to 14 years for simply obtaining leaked information”, said Rebecca Vincent, RSF’s UK Bureau Director.

According to RSF, “the high profile media bashing and toxic anti-media discourse surrounding Brexit in the UK contributed to a new global era of post-truth, disinformation and fake news.”

Roy Greenslade, veteran media commentator and Professor of Journalism at the University of London said at a panel discussion during the report’s launch in London that the UK had fallen in the media freedom index due to an authoritarian clampdown on journalists in recent times.

The section of the report dealing with the US was titled “Poisonous rhetoric and other political pressure”. It said:“The election of the 45th president of the United States set off a witch-hunt against journalists. Donald Trump’s repeated diatribes against the Fourth Estate and its representatives - accusing them of being “among the most dishonest human beings on earth” and of deliberately spreading “fake news” -  compromise a long US tradition of defending freedom of expression. The hate speech used by the new boss in the White House and his accusations of lying also helped to disinhibit attacks on the media almost everywhere in the world, including in democratic countries”.

Trump completed his 100 days at a celebratory rally in Pennsylvania hurling insults at the media. He used the occasion to accuse the media of fake news and said it had scored a ‘fat, failed grade’ in the business of news. In an unprecedented move, Trump boycotted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last weekend - the first American president to do so.

Comedian Hasan Minhaj stole the show at the event with his political satire on Trump. “Our leader is not here today..because he is in Moscow”. “He tweets at 3 am because it is 10 am in Moscow”....and so on and so forth, earning himself a standing ovation from the assembled journalists who had turned out this year in even bigger numbers as a show of solidarity.

The more Trump and his administration have lashed  out at the media, the more the mainstream media, barring the Murdoch-owned Fox News, have hit out at him. A record number of satirical shows on television have had a field day mauling and ridiculing him.

Neither the UK nor India can claim to boast of the  degree of media freedom that American journalists have demonstrated in the first 100 days of Trump’s Presidency. Maybe both should take a leaf out of the American media’s book to fight back against the attack on their freedom.


Nupur Basu is a senior journalist and documentary filmmaker.


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