A red flag for democracy as press freedom worldwide hits record lows

(Photo by Todd Gehman, CC BY-NC 2.0)

As cases of COVID-19 continue to spike across the world, news consumption has accelerated at unprecedented rates. Audiences are all too aware of the need for rapid, quality information in this race against time. In response, journalists are working around the clock to provide critical updates and combat rumor and misinformation surrounding the pandemic. But they’re starting from behind.

Two recent reports, from Freedom House and the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute, highlight increasing restrictions on press freedom over the past year, a trend now evident in every region. This is all the more concerning as V-Dem research over the past decade identifies these same media indicators as a canary in the coal mine: when news media lose their freedoms, others are not far behind.

Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2020, released in early March, pulls no punches: “Democracy and pluralism are under assault.” Nowhere is this so evident as it is in “Freedom of Expression and Belief,” the only of six subcategories to decline in every region.

Freedom in the World 2020, Freedom House

Crackdowns on freedom of expression and the press have become a regular occurrence, from ongoing restrictions and arrests (China, the Philippines) to media capture by the state (Hungary, Poland) and internet shutdowns in the face of unrest (Iran, Kashmir). For others, disinformation online draws concerns during elections (Nigeria) and spurs “fake news” laws that may in fact be used to censor voices of opposition (Singapore). The list goes on.

These findings are expanded upon in V-Dem’s Democracy Report 2020, presented alongside a broader analysis of autocratization over the past decade. The massive undertaking records over 400 indicators of democratic freedoms, and freedom of expression measurements are further divided into government censorship, harassment of journalists, self-censorship, media bias, and more. All are among the top ten of “substantially declining” indicators over the past decade. Leading that list is media censorship, which, alongside repression of civil society, has intensified in a record thirty-seven countries.

Democracy Report 2020, Varieties of Democracy Institute

This alarming trend is a red flag for what might lie ahead. According to V-Dem’s analysis over the past several decades, the process of autocratization begins with a crackdown on the voices that might stand in its way.

The report states, “Media freedom and civil society are repressed first. Only well after those arenas of mobilization and countervailing information have been brought under control are the core institutions of democracy—free and fair elections—degraded.” The record declines in both indicators have become an undeniable warning in the battle for democratic freedoms across the world.

Democracy Report 2020, Varieties of Democracy Institute

The good news, as both Freedom House and V-Dem report, is that resistance is growing. Democratic movements and protests in every region show a citizenry eager to have their voices heard. Now, inevitably, those voices are sheltered-in-place, not on the streets—but they are certainly tuning in. In an already difficult environment, media outlets are striving to stay afloat while providing quality information to a world desperately in need of it.

National and global emergencies rightfully raise concerns of increased crackdowns on free expression as governments grapple with the challenges ahead, and there are many. History shows that supporting independent, reliable, and adept media must be at the top of that list.

Kate Musgrave is the Assistant Research and Outreach Officer at the Center for International Media Assistance. Find her on Twitter at @kate_musgrave.

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