Freedom of the Press Index: Press freedom declined to its lowest point in 12 years in 2015

Source: Asian Correspondent

Source: Freedom House
Source: Freedom House

TODAY marks the observance of World Press Freedom Day, which only serves to highlight the sobering fact that last year saw the global level of press freedom sink to its lowest point in 12 years, according to the Freedom of the Press 2016 index.

The index was released as part of the Freedom of the Press 2016 report, which put the global average score for press freedom at 48.9 – its lowest since 2003.

The annual report, which is published by U.S.-based non-profit Freedom House, went on to say that only 13 percent of world’s population enjoys free press; while 41 percent had partly free press, and 46 percent had no free press.

The report’s director of research, Jennifer Dunham, said that journalists around the world are facing an increasingly hostile media environment, be it through oppressive laws, pressure from governments and corporate entities, or physical endangerment.

“Governments used security or anti-terrorism laws as a pretext to silence critical voices, militant groups and criminal gangs used increasingly brazen tactics to intimidate journalists, and media owners attempted to manipulate news content to serve their political or business interests,” she said.

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Among the countries that suffered the largest declines in 2015 were Bangladesh (7 points), Turkey (6), Burundi (6), France (5), Serbia (5), Yemen (5), Egypt (4), Macedonia (4), and Zimbabwe (4), while the world’s 10 worst-rated countries and territories were Belarus, Crimea, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Access to Information and Fundamental Freedoms – This Is Your Right!

In 1993, the United Nations (UN) proclaimed that World Press Freedom Day would fall on May 3, to coincide with the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek, a statement of free press principles.

This year’s World Press Freedom Day focuses on freedom and access to information, which is considered a cornerstone of press freedom.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon said in a statement that he was concerned about “the increasingly restrictive environment for media workers in many countries.”

Ban said that a free, independent and safe media environment was essential for progress, yet journalists are constantly threatened, harassed, obstructed, jailed, or even killed in the pursuit of information.

“On this World Press Freedom Day, I urge all governments, politicians, businesses and citizens to commit to nurturing and protecting an independent, free media. Without this fundamental right, people are less free and less empowered. With it, we can work together for a world of dignity and opportunity for all.”

Speaking to USA Today, Courtney Radsch, advocacy director at Committee to Protect Journalists (CIJ), said this regarding the importance of observing World Press Freedom Day:

“It’s important to take a day to remember those [journalists] who paid with their lives, who paid their bodies, or are behind the bars (to inform the public).”

Press Freedom in the Asia-Pacific

Out of a total of 40 countries in the region surveyed for the Freedom of the Press report, 14 countries were rated as “Free”, while 12 were listed as “Partly Free” and 14 were “Not Free”.

Below are the top 10 countries in the region which scored the worst for press freedom in 2015 (higher scores indicate more press freedom violations):

Asia-Pacific Countries Press Freedom Status Press Freedom Score
  1) North Korea Not Free 97
  2) China Not Free 87
  3) Vietnam Not Free 85
  4) Laos Not Free 84
  5) Thailand Not Free 77
  6) Brunei Not Free 76
  7) Myanmar (Burma) Not Free 73
  8) Cambodia Not Free 69
  9) Malaysia Not Free 67
10) Singapore Not Free 67

Despite being listed as “Free” in the report, journalists in Japan have said that press freedom has been in decline in the country due to government interference and heavy-handed legislation.

In April, UN special rapporteur David Kaye said that Japan’s press was facing serious threats as a result of the State Secrecy Law, which was passed in 2013 and is said to be so broadly-worded that it could be used to obstruct the public’s right to know.

Hong Kong has also seen a worrying increase in intervention from Beijing, despite the “one country, two systems” agreement granting it autonomy. The alleged abduction of five Hong Kong booksellers with links to a local publisher of books that carried titles critical of China’s leaders has spooked media practitioners in Hong Kong, especially as the men had all subsequently reappeared under Chinese custody.

The shocking dismissal of Keung Kwok-yuen, the executive chief editor of Chinese-language newspaper Ming Pao, two weeks ago has sparked controversy in Hong Kong’s media circles due to the timing of his dismissal, which came barely a day after the paper’s front-page revelation on the Panama Papers scandal.

On Monday, some 400 people gathered in Hong Kong to protest Keung’s sacking. Protesters carried signs saying “protect journalists, protect Ming Pao, protect press freedom.”

Besides that, the recent acquisition of  the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English-language newspaper, by Alibaba, a China-owned company with strong ties to the Beijing government, has raised concerns over whether its ownership would influence the paper’s content to have a more pro-China bent.

In Thailand, its military-run government has blocked veteran reporter Pravit Rojanaphruk from leaving the country to attend a UNESCO event in Finland, reported Voice of America on Monday.

According to Thai junta officials, the Khaosod English journalist has refused to learn his lesson after two sessions in detention for what they call “attitude adjustment”, and still persists in publishing “attacks” on the government.

“It couldn’t be more ironic,” Pravit was quoted saying.

“Stop the media clampdown and repeal oppressive laws”

In conjunction with World Press Freedom Day, some media NGOs have spoken out about vital issues surrounding press freedom in their respective countries.

Malaysia’s Institute of Journalists (IoJ) has urged authorities to cease its clampdown on local media and repeal draconian laws.

“In recent weeks, we highlighted no less than two cases where journalists have faced criminal investigations for news reports that allegedly did not go down well with news makers,” it said in astatement posted to its Facebook page.

It added that there were sufficient legal avenues for any party to seek recourse if they believe they have been defamed in the media, but reiterated that the government should not interfere in such matters.

Besides that, the IoJ also called on the Malaysian government to stop its arbitrary blocking of online news portals and to eliminate government control over print publications.

“As Malaysia moves towards developed nation status by 2020, fundamental freedoms like freedom of information must similarly be increased to promote a marketplace of ideas and to allow society to flourish,” it said.

In line with that, the IoJ recommended that oppressive laws such as the Official Secrets Act 1972, the Sedition Act 1948 and the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 be repealed in order to improve access to information, as “these laws, many of which date back to the era of colonial rule, give the authorities the power to decide broadly what can and cannot be discussed in public; such legislation should not have any place in a modern democracy.”

Regarding the proposal to have online news portals and blogs register with the government in order to be able to operate, the IoJ found the proposed legislation to be “unnecessary and troubling”.

“We strongly oppose any form of regulation of the press, especially if such measures are abused to suppress negative reports about the government of the day,” it said, adding that the government should not look at the media as its enemy, but as a crucial institution that must be free to hold the powerful accountable.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) announced that it is hosting a talk this evening entitled “How Free is Thailand’s Media Now”, featuring four notable journalists currently working for the Thai media.

The Bangkok Post’s deputy editor Nopporn Wong-Anan, the Southeast Asia Press Alliance’s campaign manager Kulachada Chaipipat, online news outlet Prachatai’s director Chiranuch Premchaiporn, and political reporter for Voice TV Anuthee Dejthevaporn will discuss how journalists in the Southeast Asian country deal with the pressure of working under a military junta.

Last month, another prominent report monitoring global press freedom – the 2016 World Press Freedom Index – was released by Reporters Without Borders, which made the grim disclosure that in 2015, media freedom “worsened significantly or stagnated” in most of the Asia-Pacific region.

Overall, it’s clear that in many developing or conflict-ridden countries, press freedom is still a privilege not afforded to most journalists, with those in power viewing the suppression of the media as the easiest means to achieve their agenda. This is why it is ever more crucial for not only media practitioners, but the public in general, to stand up for press freedom.

“Freedom of the press is a precious privilege that no country can forgo.”

— Mahatma Gandhi


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