Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has released its annual World Press Freedom Index for 2020, raising concerns about the future of independent journalism, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic. This they said, provides an ideal avenue for authoritarian governments to “implement the notorious ‘shock doctrine’,” taking advantage of the crisis to further restrictive measures that would not have been accepted in calmer times.
The report highlights that a number of crises that free journalism has to face have been exacerbated by the global pandemic.
It notes that authoritarian regimes around the world, like China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, continue attempts to suppress free information and independent journalism.
Additionally, with information technology advancing faster with regulations around it lagging behind, journalism finds itself having to compete with propaganda and rumours. The proliferation of the latter, in turn, encourages the adoption of dangerous ‘anti-fake news’ legislation that can be strategically used to suppress dissent and critical journalism.
Meanwhile, growing public distrust and hostility towards journalists is a cause for alarm, especially since certain countries’ leaders, like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, and their cabinets openly encourage hatred of the media.
Finally, journalism has been hit hard by digital transformations that has caused a collapse in advertising revenue, leading to compromised editorial freedom. Journalistic freedom and independence is further threatened by ownership concentration, conflicts of interest, and consolidation into profit-driven media conglomerates.
The RSF report is critical of the fact that the EU has appointed the Hungarian Oliver Varhelyi as the Commissioner for Enlargement Negotiations, who will be crucial for integrating the Western Balkans into the Union, seeing as Hungary is one of the EU’s “most repressive governments.”
It expresses concern over Hungary’s drift towards authoritarianism, witnessed by the fact that Prime Minister Viktor Orban has used the global pandemic as an excuse to assume total powers indefinitely. Hungarian legislation that would see anyone convicted of publishing fake news sentenced to up to five years in prison, the government using allocation of advertising as way to put pressure on the media, and the election of members of the ruling party to Hungary’s broadcasting watchdog have lead to the country falling two points, to 89th, in this year’s Index.
Poland fell three points due to the government using the judiciary to exert pressure on the media, via article 212 of the penal code that foresees up to one year in prison for journalists convicted of defamation.
Montenegro and Albania fell two places due to journalists having been detained and legally harassed under the pretext of fighting disinformation.
Serbia fell three places, seeing as those responsible for setting the house of a journalist on fire have yet to be convicted by a court.
In Austria, Italy, and Greece, the report found, far-right groups continue attacking journalists on the ground amid growing hostility towards migrants.
Apart from verbal and physical violence, journalists also have to face online harassment and surveillance, even in the report’s highest-ranking countries like Norway, Finland, and Sweden. Challenges in confidentiality of sources and denial of access to information create additional challenges to free journalism.
In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, strongmen continue consolidating their grip on information, most prominently Russia’s Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan.
Journalists in Turkey can be imprisoned simply for quoting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party or questioning the government’s policies on social media.
Meanwhile, Russia’s “Sovereign Internet” law mandates all internet service providers direct traffic through a state-controlled, centralized system, effectively cutting the country’s internet off from the rest of the world.
Troublesome media in the region are subjected to online troll armies spreading fake news, as well as to cyber attacks, like DDoS attacks.
Independent and investigative journalism is further impeded by government stonewalling, with critical media reporters finding it increasingly harder to access government information.
Media ownership is concentrated in the hands of pro-government or pro-opposition oligarchs threaten editorial independence, and lead to ‘anti-disinformation’ legislation that can be applied maliciously. Economic precarity, with independent media being denied state subsidies and ad revenue, has led to investigative journalism stagnating as a result of a lack of resources, with independent journalists being paid much less than their counterparts employed by state media.
Albania dropped two places in the Index from last year, ranking now at 84th.
This mostly due to the government’s increased attempts to take control of the media under the pretext of fighting fake news. The anti-defamation legislation passed by the parliament in December, and vetoed by President Ilir Meta, limits freedom of information and press, and risks increasing censorship and media vulnerability to government pressures, RSF found.
The legislation would exacerbate the poor state of freedom of the press “in a country where the government regularly restricts access of journalists to official information and controls the TV market via the attribution of broadcast licences.”
RSF also cites the closure of an online media portal critical of the government, and the arrest of a journalist and two activists for spreading ‘fake news’ and ‘panic’ in the wake of the November earthquake.
In March 2020, Prime Minister Edi Rama, amid the coronavirus pandemic, called on citizens to protect themselves against, among other things, the media.