WASHINGTON — Despite an ever-expanding number of ways to put out news and information, a new report says the crackdown on media freedoms around the world has been unrelenting. Freedom of the Press 2014 says global press freedom has “fallen to its lowest level in over a decade,” with major setbacks in places that had been making progress only a few years ago.
Just about everywhere, simply getting the news is getting harder. The non-profit democracy advocate Freedom House reported that media freedom is on the decline worldwide.
“We see attempts to control or manipulate the message, so increased use of propaganda, of trying to influence editorial content in advance. Then what we also see is a crackdown and harassment of bloggers and people who are using these mediums to get out information,” said project director Karin Karlekar.
Karlekar said media freedoms eroded so badly in 2013 that only one out of every six people worldwide had access to a “Free” media.
In many areas that saw declines, she added, governments did not act alone.
“There were changes in media ownership at key outlets. And then we saw changes in editorial tone, we saw pressure being placed on journalists,” said Karlerkar.
North Korea was ranked the worst of the 197 countries and territories rated by Freedom House. Iran was also near the bottom despite a slight improvement during its presidential election. Syria, where journalists have been killed and kidnapped, was near the bottom as well.
The Middle East as a whole saw the worst press freedom declines, led by Egypt, where the military-backed government cracked down hard, targeting journalists and putting them on trial.
Others died covering the violence.
“We did have hope a few years ago because the openings created by the Arab spring had actually led to a sort of halt in this level of decline. But what we saw this year was that those openings had, you know, evaporated in many cases or there’s been significant backsliding in the Middle East,” said Karlekar.
Only two percent of the region’s population has access to a “Free” media, 14 percent to a “Partly Free” media; 84 percent live in countries where the media is “Not Free.”
Yet no region fared worse than Eurasia, where in Russia, journalists were jailed and beaten, some dying of their injuries. In Ukraine, journalists protested as colleagues suffered brutal assaults, some during the Euromaidan protests.
But the two former Soviet states were not alone.
Journalists in Belarus again found themselves in court and under pressure, prompting calls for action from groups like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
"Detentions [of journalists] have to stop now," said Dunja Mijatovic, an OSCE representative.
According to Freedom House, not a single person in Eurasia -- outside of Western Europe -- lives in a country with a free media; three percent of the region’s population has access to a “Partly Free” media while 97 percent live in countries rated as “Not Free.”
Turkey led the decline in media freedom for Europe, according to the Freedom House report, with the media coming under increased pressure after the Gezi Park protests broke out last May and with the government harassing journalists covering sensitive issues, with some top journalists losing their jobs.
But Turkey also showed that sometimes governments can only go so far.
“We have seen in the case of Turkey, for example, there was a huge public outcry when Turkey tried to ban Twitter recently. So there is often a lot of public pushback to some of these more repressive measures by governments, which is a positive sign,” said Karlekar.
The report says, overall, 66 percent of Europeans live in countries with a “Free” media; 22 percent in countries with a “Partly Free” media; and only 12 percent in countries with a media rated as “Not Free.”
China was again at the forefront of the struggle for media freedom in the Asia-Pacific region. Supporters of a liberal Chinese paper at one point clashed with authorities, while others pushed for more freedom on social media, with little luck.
“China’s always a country where there’s an extensive level of control, and when you do see these openings, such as in the micro-blogosphere in the last few years, that was an area that they really started to crack down on this past year, because they saw this is where people are sort of pushing the boundaries,” said Karlekar.
Vietnam also cracked down on online speech, while the pace of reform slowed in Burma, and Thailand slipped with increasing attacks on journalists.
Only 5 percent of the region’s population has access to a “Free” media, 47 percent have access to a “Partly Free” media, and 48 percent live in countries where the media is “not free.”
The struggle for media in Latin America was highlighted by developments in Venezuela, where post-election clashes between opponents and supporters of President Nicolas Maduro led to a media crackdown and new ownership for the country's 24-hour news network, Globovision.
Journalists and their families also were intimidated and targeted, with deadly results in Mexico and Honduras.
On a positive note for the region, Cuba let a popular dissident blogger go on a world tour but, Freedom House said only two percent of Latin Americans live in countries with a “Free” media; 67 percent in countries rated as “Partly Free” and 31 percent in countries rated as “Not Free.”
In Africa, conflicts, like the coup in the Central African Republic, and violence, like the terrorist attack in Kenya at the Westgate shopping center, led to new pressures and more violence against journalists, while corruption raised concerns in Uganda, where one newspaper was briefly shut down. But Freedom House said that is only part of the story.
“Pretty much every other region in the world showed an overall level of decline. But in Africa, the overall regional average score remained the same and there were really bright spots, I would say, in a number of countries in West Africa and then in Southern Africa,” said Karlekar.
Among other positives, the report points to better laws and a growing number of media outlets.
Overall, only 3 percent of sub-Saharan Africans have access to a “Free” media, 14 percent have access to a “Partly Free” media, and 41 percent live in countries where the media is “Not Free.”
Even some countries with a history of media freedom saw those freedoms erode, including the United States. Freedom House pointed to government efforts to harass journalists, especially those reporting on matters of national security.
The U.S. Justice Department went after a reporter at the New York Times to get his confidential sources and the government seized the phone records of journalists at the Associated Press.
It's a worrisome trend for the Poynter Institute's Kelly McBride, who spoke to VOA via Skype.
“News consumers are going to be more easily deceived and more confused about the truth. And we’re already seeing that,” said McBride.
The end result, she said, is a media environment that puts the pressure on the audience to determine what is really legitimate.