Freedom of Information fell sharply around the world in 2014 according to the annual World Press Freedom Index, published by ‘Reporters without Borders’. In publishing their 2014 report, Reporters without Borders, the France-based, international organization committed to upholding freedom of expression and information globally, noted that there was a decline on all fronts of freedom of information last year.
World Press Freedom Index ranks the performance of 180 countries according to a range of criteria that include media pluralism and independence, respect for the safety and freedom of journalists, and the legislative, institutional and infrastructural environment in which the media operate.
This year’s report placed three Scandinavian countries, Finland, Norway and Denmark, on top of the list of countries with most freedom. These three countries have been in the top five ranking for the past five years. At the other end of the scale, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea, in last place, were the worst performers.
Among the Gulf Cooperation Countries, Kuwait at 90th position topped the list in the Middle-East, achieving a gain of one rank from its billing in 2014. Among other GCC states, Qatar at 115 and the UAE at 120 fell two positions, while Oman was up by 7 to reach 127th position. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia remained unchanged from 2014 in 163rd and 164th positions respectively.
France is ranked 38th (up one place), Japan 61st (down two places), Iran 173rd (unchanged) and China 176th (down one place). Other countries where press freedom slumped badly included Venezuela (down 20 places to 137th), Libya (down 17 places to 154th) and Russia (down 4 places to 152nd).
The USA “continued its decline” after the Obama administration spent much of the year trying to force New York Times journalist James Risen to reveal his sources, as well as going after WikiLeaks. It fell three places to 49th in the world. Britain was ranked 34th in the world in 2015, having fallen one place since last year’s index was published.
Reasons for the worrying decline included the proliferation of conflicts during 2014, in the Middle East, Africa, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. The media, used for propaganda purposes or starved of information, became strategic targets and were attacked, or even silenced by the warring parties.
The emergence and expansion of non-state groups that follow no laws and disregard basic rights in pursuit of their own ends was another reason curtailing freedom of expression in 2104. From Boko Haram to Islamic State, Latin American drug traffickers and the Italian mafia, motives may vary but their modus operandi is the same – the use of fear and reprisals to silence journalists and bloggers who dare to investigate them or refuse to act as their mouthpieces.
But muzzling freedom of information is not limited to undemocratic countries; democracies too take liberties with their values in the name of national security. Faced with real or spurious threats, governments arm themselves routinely with an entire arsenal of laws aimed at muzzling independent voices.
The European Unions recorded a bigger decline in 2015 than in the 2014 Index, exposing the limits of its ‘democratic model’ and highlighting the inability of its mechanisms to halt the erosion.
The EU appears to be swamped by a certain desire on the part of some member states to compromise on freedom of information. As a result, the gaps between members are widening – EU countries are ranked from 1st to 106th in the Index, an unprecedented spread.
Threats from the mafia and unjustified defamation suits, skyrocketed in Italy, pushing it down 24 places to73rd in the world. Andorra, which experienced the worst decline of any country in the world (down 27 places to 32nd), “has paid the price for the lack of independence of its media from financial, political and religious interests,” said the Report.
There was rare good news; among them was Mongolia (54th) which rose 34 places, the Index’s biggest jump. It had few violations in 2014, while the benefits of legislation on access to information began to be seen. Problems remain, however, including on the legislative front, but there has been a clear improvement.
Another gainer was Nepal (105th), which was up 15 places thanks to a drop in violence by the security forces against journalists, especially at demonstrations. This improvement remains to be confirmed in 2015. Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, rose seven places, and Latin American giants Brazil and Mexico, both registered gains of 12 and 4 places to place them on the 99th and 148th places respectively.