A bad press

Ranking topics: press freedom

ACROSS the world, freedom of the press is atrophying. According to scores compiled by Freedom House, a think-tank, the muzzling of journalists and independent news media is at its worst point in 13 years. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the number of journalists jailed for their work is at the highest level since the 1990s. The deterioration has come from all quarters: Vladimir Putin has so thoroughly throttled the Russian media that Freedom House’s scorers rated Venezuela freer. Newer strongmen, such as Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua’s blood-soaked president, and Viktor Orban, Hungary’s illiberal prime minister, have also flexed censorious muscles. Even though Donald Trump has frequently demonised the news media as the “enemy of the people”, America’s strong First Amendment and independent courts have prevented him from acting on these illiberal outbursts. Nonetheless, his rhetoric has given succour to autocrats in other countries, who have passed laws outlawing “fake news” and quickly set about persecuting political opponents.

The Freedom House figures suggest that a free press is increasingly becoming a luxury limited to the West. Nordic countries continue to lead the world, and western Europe remains quite free despite a few wobbles. There are only a few bright spots to be found elsewhere. Where dictatorial regimes were unwound or forcibly ejected, such as those of Afghanistan and Myanmar, the media have gained independence, though they still fall well short of rich-country standards. Tunisia saw its press-freedom rating improve by 30 points in a 100-point scale after the Arab Spring toppled Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, its former president-for-life. But nearby Egypt has worsened dramatically since the army overthrew a government led by Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, in 2013 and named General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi president after the coup. South America has shown worrying retrenchment as well: Freedom House no longer considers Ecuador and Venezuela to have a free press. Things are worsening in major countries like Argentina, Brazil and Colombia, which find themselves on the cusp of a “not free” rating.

The case for a free press rests not only on classical liberal principles but also on hard data. Cross-country studies show strong and consistent associations between unfettered media, vibrant democracies and limited corruption. China, which has a tightly controlled media and perhaps the world’s most sophisticated censorship scheme, thinks it has proven that prosperity can be achieved without a free press. In less extreme fashion, Singapore shares similar authoritarian attitudes. Politicians everywhere do not much like to be criticised. To a worrying number of them, this Singapore model—or Beijing model, depending on preference—can prove more attractive than the Western approach of putting up with a pesky press. In normal times, America would denounce the jailing of journalists and muzzling of newspapers. But given Mr Trump’s predilections, the position of global free-press champion is vacant.

This article is from our Graphic detail blog.