Press Freedom: 10 Years Freedom Barometer
Freedom of the press is a precious privilege that no country can forego.
Despite these words of Mahatma Gandhi, according to the data trajectories on the graph below and events and developments over the last ten years, it seems that this precious privilege is only granted in the few most developed democracies. Technological developments transformed the way people consume information and, at the same time, transformed the way media function today in comparison with 2010. These developments increased the speed of dissemination of information and lowered the price of the dissemination process, considerably broadening information outreach and – consequently – enhancing its impact. Such developments on one hand led autocrats in Europe to consider a free press as an “enemy of the people” and to label many media workers as such, while on the other hand readily using the great opportunities that media decentralization offered for, among others, public manipulation. This made media outlets face various challenges.
This hostile climate towards media is frequently sparked by harsh rhetoric from politicians, which is a practice common in a majority of the observed countries. Physical and verbal violence against journalists, together with even the imprisonment or other maltreatment of their families, are tools used to silent criticism, especially in Central Asia, Turkey, and Russia. The concentration of ownership in the hands of a few companies or a couple of people is becoming an ever-bigger problem, especially since big broadcast media conglomerates are often used as mouthpieces for certain political parties.
Freedom has deteriorated the most in those countries where autocratic regimes aimed to secure or further empower their position, like Turkey, Russia, Hungary, Poland, and Serbia. But the freedom to be informed is also endangered by false information propaganda campaigns from abroad, mostly from Russia, such as in the Baltic countries, the Czech Republic, Ukraine and Moldova. This also means that, when comparing press freedom level by various European regions, it declined the most in Central and Eastern European EU-member countries which had previously enjoyed a relatively high level of media freedom. However, a shift from democratic to autocratic tendencies during the unfinished democratic transition made press freedom a prime victim. The last two years even witnessed politically motivated assassinations of journalists in those countries, such as in the case of an investigative journalist from Slovakia, Ján Kuciak.
The biggest challenges to press freedom over the decade were:
- Increased concentration of media ownership and unclear ownership structures;
- Extensive political and economic pressure on media reporting through biased procedures of state subsidies or public-sector advertising;
- Systematic misinformation campaigns, intended to undermine democratic institutions, shape public opinion, spark social polarisation, and diminish trust in media and their work;
- Crackdown on critical media reporting through abuse of legal and the use of extra-legal tools;
- Hostile environment for journalists marred with verbal and physical attacks, smearing, intimidation, or even murders;
- Poor economic situation in many countries, itself contributing to the downgrading of professional standards in media.
These trends also made the role of CSO-driven investigative journalism increasingly important, as it is able to perform as an informal oversight control of government and state issues despite economic challenges and political pressures. However, that has turned most of these journalists into victims of verbal and physical violence during recent years.
Also, Freedom Barometer dedicated a special report “Fake it until you make it” to fake news as a trend used for the manipulation of public opinion via internet and that report captured serious attention in the political life of Europe and the world. The internet provides space for the further democratisation of our societies by bringing political and social processes much closer to ordinary citizens. However, that very space is increasingly used for intentional manipulation over public opinion and for suppressing fundamental freedoms such as freedom of expression and freedom to information.
These practices mostly occur in authoritarian states, however foreign meddling in domestic political processes has turned this into an issue in all European countries. Some of the main findings of this report were:
- The fake news phenomenon directly influences all three pillars of Political Freedom in the Freedom Barometer Index, through hindering the freedom and fairness of elections, undermining democratic institutions, and decreasing both the trust in, and quality of, media journalism.
- There is evidence of social media manipulation for socio-political purposes in 25 countries covered by Freedom Barometer Index analysis.
- Authoritarian countries changed their media strategy, from propagating false content from abroad to empowering domestic groups with the know-how and resources to create and disseminate fake news.
- In the name of the fight against fake news, authoritarian regimes managed to tighten their grips over information dissemination in society through new laws.
- Democracies are often caught in a trap, wherein their reaction causes more harm than the event itself. The same applies to fake news. The struggle against fake news could potentially harm freedom of expression and the democratic order more than fake news itself.