Third in a series
WASHINGTON — Myriam Ruiz was working for a small television station in southern Chile when employees of a large supermarket went on strike.
But Ruiz’s station “couldn’t say a word” about the strike because their station was sponsored by the supermarket.
“They were paying for the news,” she said. “Our salary came from them.”
Ruiz, now a journalism professor at Universidad del Desarrollo in Santiago, Chile, said she thinks this type of economic pressure still happens in some small cities, though she also said press freedom improved after Chile’s dictatorship ended. Chile was under a military dictatorship from 1973-89, according to Brittanica.
Press freedom remains a global issue. In the introduction to its 2016 report titled “Media: when oligarchs go shopping,” nonprofit organization Reporters Without Borders explores “a worldwide trend towards increasingly concentrated ownership of conglomerates that combine media outlets (TV channels, radio stations, newspapers and news websites) with banks, telecoms, property firms and construction companies.”
Additionally, Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index states, “Hostility towards the media from political leaders is no longer limited to authoritarian countries such as Turkey and Egypt.”
“More and more democratically-elected leaders no longer see the media as part of democracy’s essential underpinning, but as an adversary to which they openly display their aversion,” it reads.
According to Reporters Without Borders, the World Press Freedom Index has been conducted annually since 2002 and measures media freedom levels in 180 countries. It looks at pluralism levels, media independence, the environment and self-censorship, legal frameworks, transparency and the quality of the infrastructure that supports news production.
Each country within the index is assigned a score calculated from data on abuses and violence against journalists during the period being evaluated and from questionnaire answers completed by lawyers, media professionals and sociologists around the world. The questionnaire is presented in 20 languages and has 87 questions.
“The scores and indicators measure constraints and violations, so the higher the figure, the worse the situation,” the website states.
Norway’s score of 7.63 means it ranks No. 1 in the world for press freedom, while North Korea’s score of 88.87 means it has the worst press freedom in the world at No. 180. The U.S. is ranked No. 45 with a score of 23.37, compared to its 23.88 score and No. 43 ranking from last year.
The index’s interactive worldwide map color codes each country by press freedom levels: white meaning “good” (represented with green in the map below), yellow meaning “fairly good,” orange meaning “problematic,” red meaning “bad” and black meaning “very bad.” The map currently shows a concentration of white countries in Europe, with largely yellow and orange countries in the western hemisphere and red and orange countries in the eastern hemisphere. A concentration of black countries is seen in Asia and northern Africa.
Reporters Without Borders Communications Officer Noni Ghani said countries in red and black typically have “an extremely poor press freedom climate.” This can include issues such as censorship, lack of plurality or independent media, and frequent violence against journalists, including murder, torture or kidnapping.
Countries marked yellow and orange, however, range from a “satisfactory situation” to a “noticeable problem” in their press freedom. This typically means there is established media pluralism and media independence, and abuses against journalists are infrequent but do occur; however, there is usually backlash to those violations.
Top-ranked Norway is marked white on the map. The government facilitates open public discourse by regulating the concentration of media ownership and promoting transparency and pluralism, according to a 2018 article from Michigan State University’s International Law Review. It states Norway’s Media Ownership Act, which was passed in 1997, banned media groups from owning more than a third of the shares in any television station, radio station or newspaper.
However, this act was abolished in 2016 in favor of the eponymous “Act relating to transparency of media ownership,” under which, the Norwegian Media Authority collects and systematizes information about ownership structures. Changes in media ownership are also subject to review by the Norwegian Competition Authority, a government agency which aims “to ensure well-functioning markets for the benefit of consumers and society at large,” according to its website.
The 2018 World Press Freedom Index notes Article 100 of Norway’s Constitution prepared the country for media freedom, and today “media are free and journalists are not subject to censorship or political pressure.”
However, it also notes the Norwegian government cut media subsidies in its annual budget in October 2017, which will hit low-circulation and regional newspapers hard.
Additionally, the Norwegian National Human Rights Institution has criticized the government’s new code of criminal procedure because it will not increase protection for the confidentiality of journalists’ sources. It doesn’t make clear in what circumstances police can violate source confidentiality.
U.S. impact on global press freedom
The index shows the U.S. ranked at No. 43 with a score of 23.88, a two-spot drop from 2017.
Ghani said press freedom has been under increasing attack over the past few years, and President Donald Trump’s administration has “further imperiled journalists’ constitutional right to report.”
She noted Trump frequently calls the press the “enemy of the people” and “fake news” in retaliation for critical reporting, and he even threatened to revoke NBC’s broadcasting licenses in October 2017 after they ran stories critical of him, according to the L.A. Times.
Ghani said the rise in anti-media rhetoric from the top ranks of the U.S. government has been coupled with an increase in local-level press freedom violations. For example, journalists risk arrest for covering protests or simply asking public officials questions, and they’ve even faced physical assault while doing their jobs.
However, she clarified “these threats to press freedom, though exacerbated by Trump’s hostility towards journalists, predated his presidency.”
For example, American whistleblowers face prosecution under the Espionage Act if they leak information to the press, and there is still no federal “shield law” guaranteeing reporters’ right to protect their sources.
Ghani also said there is “no doubt” Trump’s rhetoric impacts global press freedom. For example, Filipino president Rodrigo Duerte and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have used Trump’s rhetoric “to silence and discredit the media to justify their own misdirected policies and draconian laws,” she said. “Authoritarian regimes all over the world can now take full advantage of Trump’s war with the media by discrediting mainstream news coverage and calling it ‘fake news.'”
She also said for a country that prides itself on being one of the world’s leading democracies and a champion of the First Amendment, its president has set “an ugly precedent” for leaders around the world.
“When a leader as powerful as the President of the United States uses this language, the consequences are clear,” she said.
However, Ruiz said Trump taking office has driven people to seek out good information from reputable sources, causing subscriptions to newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post to increase. The New York Times reported in August 2018 it added 109,000 digital-only subscribers during the second quarter of 2018.
This effect has been called the “Trump bump“ by technology news website Recode, and the Washington Post reported last year on how news media organizations have used Trump’s accusations of “fake news” as advertising tactics.
She also said rather than calling the Chilean press the enemy of the people, she’d call it “the best friend of the people.”
“There are many things you wouldn’t know if the press wouldn’t say it, and the people recognize that,” she said.
Supporting press freedom
Ghani said Reporters Without Borders regards media freedom as a basic human right to be informed and to inform others. The organization’s website states that “factual truth serves as the basis for individual and collective choices,” and that press freedom guarantees human dignity, promotes democracy, promotes development and guarantees individual capacities.
“There can be no freedom of thought without knowledge of reality,” the website reads.
Ghani said people can promote global press freedom by supporting organizations that defend those freedoms. This could mean joining membership networks, signing petitions, participating in protests or donating to press freedom causes or organizations.
Katie Townsend, the legal director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said it’s important for people to support journalistic organizations that are doing great work they believe in, whether that’s the New York Times, a local news outlet or a nonprofit news organization.
“I think subscribing to those publications and reading them and being an advocate for factual information … (is) something that everyone can and should do as citizens,” she said.
Ruiz said it’s important young people be taught how to demand good information, which can be difficult because of how much information is digitally available. It’s also important to distinguish between the information people want and the information they need.
“When you give people what they want, you may fall into bad journalism,” she said. “But when you’re aware of what people need to know … then you’re making change for this society.”