We see the pressure that journalism and the media are under from governments around the world when journalists are jailed in countries like Egypt, or murdered, or silenced in various other ways. But it’s not until we get a global picture from something like the annual World Press Freedom Index that it becomes obvious how endangered a free press has become — even in the United States, which has fallen steadily in the media-freedom rankings every year.
If nothing else, this kind of overview reinforces one thing: Namely, the necessity and importance of having alternative forms of media and speech, whether it’s Twitter and YouTube and Instagram or a media entity like WikiLeaks. These can be blocked and content can be banned by governments, but it is harder to do. In effect, it forces repressive governments to play a giant game of Whack-A-Mole by going after every individual user who posts a photo or uploads a video.
Difficult to ban
Turkey, for example, has been trying very hard over the past year to get content removed from and/or blocked by Twitter — including an account belonging to an opposition newspaper — and the government’s court orders for personal information have skyrocketed. To Twitter’s credit, the company has resisted these orders, and is fighting others in court, and the social network remains a crucial lifeline for many citizens who are trying to keep track of what their government is doing.
And why would something like WikiLeaks be important, despite the various well-documented flaws in that organization and its leader Julian Assange? Because press freedom in the United States has been declining for years. According to the index, the U.S. is now in 49th place — behind the tiny Polynesian nation of Tonga — compared with just five years ago, when it was in 20th place. The government’s ongoing campaign against WikiLeaks is part of that, as is the action taken against journalists like James Risen, who has resisted attempts to get him to reveal his sources.
A drastic decline
The Press Freedom index is compiled every year by the group Reporters Without Borders, which was founded in 1985 and campaigns on behalf of journalists around the world, as well as tracking abuse and repression directed towards the media. And the latest survey comes to a rather grim conclusion: press freedom has declined dramatically around the world, with more than half of the 180 countries ranking lower than in 2013.
“There was a drastic decline in freedom of information in 2014. Two-thirds of the 180 countries surveyed for the 2015 World Press Freedom Index performed less well than in the previous year. The annual global indicator, which measures the overall level of violations of freedom of information in 180 countries year by year, has risen to 3,719, an 8 percent increase over 2014 and almost 10 percent compared with 2013.”
In the most recent survey, many of the usual suspects show up in the negative column: Libya, where journalists continue to be kidnapped and in some cases murdered, and of course Russia — where the government has blocked websites and even shut down alternative media outlets that were critical of the administration. Also in the bad-and-getting-worse column are countries like South Sudan, Venezuela and even Italy, where journalists have been threatened by criminal groups like the Mafia.
New media is everywhere
Reporters Without Borders also mentions how some areas of the world are effectively “black holes” when it comes to measuring the freedom of the press, and many of these dark spots appear in the region that is at the bottom of the global index — North Africa and the Middle East. Many areas, the group says, “are controlled by non-state groups in which independent information simply does not exist.”
Obviously, Twitter and Facebook and Instagram — or even entities like WikiLeaks — aren’t a solution to these kinds of systemic problems. But the simple fact that individuals around the world now have access to some or all of the same tools that journalists do means that we can get information directly from places like Egypt or Iran or Turkey, without having to rely on a professional press that has been muzzled or brought to heel.
That’s why some of the new-media efforts I think are the most interesting and important are the ones that are trying to harness this vast volunteer workforce in some way, whether it’s through verification tools like Storyful, or online community efforts like Reportedly from First Look Media, or crowdsourcing efforts like the Ukraine Vehicle database project that British blogger Eliot Higgins recently launched.