Watchdog: Global Freedom of Press at Lowest Point in 12 Years

By Jose R. Gonzalez | April 29, 2016 | 11:08am EDT
Pallbearers carry the casket of Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Bernard Verlhac, who was killed in the January 2015 terrorist attack at the satirical publication's Paris offices. (AP photo)

( -- International press freedom has hit a 12-year low point, a decline due in part to European countries pursuing security measures to thwart terrorism, newly released data from the nonpartisan organization Freedom House reveals.

The findings were made public Wednesday at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. as the watchdog group released its annual Freedom of the Press report.

“Global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 12 years in 2015, as political, criminal and terrorist forces sought to co-opt or silence the media in their broader struggle for power,” Freedom of the Press research director Jennifer Dunham wrote. 

"Syria remained by far the deadliest place in the world for journalists in 2015," the report stated. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 72 members of the press were killed on the job last year, 14 in Syria.

A nation with a “free press” is defined as one in which “coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.”

However, the report found that press censorship is the norm in most of the world today. Just 13 percent of the global population enjoys the benefits of a “free press,” it said.

“A majority of the world’s population lives in countries without a free press,” Newseum President and CEO Jeffrey Herbst pointed out at the report’s unveiling.

The report highlighted “heightened partisanship and polarization in a country’s media environment” as one factor for the steep decline in freedom of the press in some countries. Another factor is “extralegal intimidation and physical violence faced by journalists,” particularly in the Middle East.

But “even in the much more open media environments of Europe, journalists faces unusual levels of pressure from terrorists and, to an extent, their own governments,” the report stated.

“Journalists in much of Europe had to contend with new threats from terrorists as well as new surveillance and security laws that could hamper their work,” Dunham said in a press release. 

France was among the countries that experienced the greatest decline in press freedom, according to the report. The decline was largely attributable to “restrictive laws” passed after the Islamic terrorist-perpetrated massacre in the Paris newsroom of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the French government’s reactions to the January 2015 attack, which left 12 people dead.  

France adopted “legislation that empowers authorities to conduct mass surveillance with little oversight," which created a "growing threat of self-censorship linked to security concerns,” the report stated.

“It’s alarming that the outpouring of support for free expression after the Charlie Hebdo attacks has been displaced by security measures that limit media freedom,” said Sarah Repucci, Freedom House's publications director.

As a result, France joined Bangladesh, Egypt, Turkey and Yemen among the countries that suffered the steepest declines in press freedom in 2015.

Dunham also said that "political leaders in Poland, Serbia, and other countries sought greater control over national media.”

The report cites the Polish government’s new power to hire and terminate the management of its state-owned media as contributing to less press freedom in Europe.

“The immediate move against public broadcasters’ independence shows the new Polish government’s determination to silence critics and take charge of the political discourse,” Repucci said.

The dishonor of being among the worst-ranked countries for press freedom went to mostly despot-run countries. Among them were Crimea, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

However, the report did find an improvement in press freedom in Chile, which was bumped up from “partly free” to “free,” making it the only country to achieve an improved status in 2015.  

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