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VOA Interview: Freedom House Report

FILE - Pakistani journalists attend a candlelight vigil to observe the World Press Freedom Day, which was declared by the UN General Assembly in 1993, May 3, 2019, in Karachi, Pakistan.

A new Freedom House report says press freedom is deteriorating worldwide. VOA's Ramon Taylor spoke to Sarah Repucci, the Senior Director for Research and Analysis for Freedom House about the report. Below is an an edited transcript.

Q: According to the report, press freedom is deteriorating worldwide; worsening for Not Free states (Eurasia + Middle East/North Africa) combined with a negative trend among Free States, notably across Europe. Can you expand on these overall findings, and its impact on the state of democracy in those countries?

A: So we've been tracking a decline in global press freedom for a decade. And this has tracked very closely with an overall decline in political rights and civil liberties around the world. The declines in press freedom, as you mentioned, are primarily in Europe, which are among the best performing countries in the world and in Eurasia and MENA (Middle East and North Africa), which are among the worst. So we're seeing it at the two ends of the spectrum. It's especially concerning, not just because press freedom is a fundamental freedom in itself, but because of its implications for democracy. On the other hand, we do see some signs of hope and some signs of a rejuvenation of the media in countries that have had a turning point. And so you can definitely see that press freedom cannot be repressed forever. And there are always people who are fighting to bring it back.

Q: Are we seeing more of the same tactics of the past (e.g. violence, harassment); or are there more nuanced efforts to undermine journalistic independence? And how do those tactics differ from Eurasia & MENA vs areas with generally more freedom, such as in European countries?

A: It's very different at the two ends of the spectrum. So at the lower end of the spectrum, we're seeing very familiar tactics: arrests of journalists, threats to their safety, repressive laws, defamation laws that criminalize free speech. But at the top end of the spectrum we are really seeing a lot of new tactics. These are democratically elected leaders who then manipulate the media in ways that are very subtle that enable them to take control of the message that is getting to the population.

Q: Specific examples of countries engaging in these tactics more recently?

A: The kind of the classic examples of these countries would be Hungary, which has been doing this for a few years now. And Serbia also in Europe. Both those countries just dropped to partly free in our freedom in the world survey and have been at the forefront of new tactics for repressing the media. But we're also seeing this in democracies around the world, in India and Israel …and also here in the United States.

Q: Here in the United States, which you call “the world’s leading democratic power,” you do mention “unusual pressure.” What’s the growing concern here, and is there any silver lining, given its high global press rating?

A: Ultimately here in the United States we have very robust protections for free speech. Our Constitution and the Supreme Court have upheld this for decades. But the kinds of attacks that we're seeing from the Trump administration are new and are very worrying. These are verbal attacks on journalists, threats to change libel laws, threats against individual media outlets. And this is part of what appears to be a trend of undermining the respect that the government has for the role that the media as opposed to play in holding leaders to account. Certainly there is a lot of optimism in this country. I mean the mainstream media, the major news media have been really strong in pushing back against these attacks and in continuing to publish information that holds leaders to account. But the concern is that norms may be changing and that it will be difficult to get back to where we were before.

Q: Would you consider this unchartered territory; U.S. legal protections on steady ground?

A: So the legal protections are absolutely, they're still there. And I don't want to say that this is the worst moment of U.S. press freedom because we've been through many, many trying times. But it is definitely new in the postwar post -World War II era. And it's also because it does appear to be part of this global trend of right-wing populist leaders who come to power and attack the media. It's a concern that it will have long-term effects here in the United States and also on the ability of the U.S. to be a leader in setting an example around the world.

Q: How much of independent news media’s problems in the west are due to the internet’s erosion of its independent business model? More news organizations are struggling to make money, continuing a long-running trend. Can independent, truth-seeking journalism exist without a viable business model to sustain it?

A: It's a really good question. I mean, certainly the financial strain that media in western countries have been undergoing now for more than a decade has laid the groundwork for many outlets to go out of business and much less local journalism than there was before. But social media have also been a huge opportunity for new forms of expression and new ways for people to publish information and distribute it. And so it’s a two-sided coin and we can't wholly say that the Internet is the downfall of the news media.

Q: What is the role of social media in improving or deteriorating press freedom? On the one hand, the report notes that social media has played an outsized role in countries like Venezuela, Armenia and Sudan in providing free expression in repressive environments. On the other hand, disinformation continues to persist on platforms with large audiences, including WeChat and WhatsApp. Do you see these tools as more of an opportunity, or a liability?

A: So it's true that both of these things are happening. We're seeing the internet and social media being used in really innovative ways, especially in countries that have a highly repressive media environment and where people have to be innovative in order to get information out there. I think Venezuela is a prime example. And then we're also seeing it being manipulated and taken advantage of in order to spread misinformation, often by governments themselves. And the fact that social media are called out as being a problem in free expression, that's often because these same governments that want to repress journalists are using the spread of disinformation as an excuse to do so. So, we are continuing to see people fighting back against this and we're also continuing to see a more nuanced understanding of how we can regulate social media. This is still evolving. We haven't found the answer yet, but I do think that we will come out to a place where we can embrace these technologies for the good that they can bring.

Q: Your report focuses extensively on China, tracing how Beijing is trying to export its media narrative through official state organs, signing partnerships with affiliates, and so forth. What’s the trouble you’re seeing there?

A: So what we're seeing is that China is not only repressing the media at home, which we've been seeing for many years, and they continue to find new ways to censor and to shut down information. But increasingly they are exporting their model of media repression to other countries. And they're doing it in three main ways: 1) They're doing it by exporting their message and finding friendly outlets that will publish and broadcast that message. 2) They're doing it by putting pressure on journalists, but also diplomats and media owners in countries to censor, basically on Beijing’s behalf. 3) And they're also getting involved in the media markets of these countries. For instance, in Africa, they own cable television and other news outlets, which they can then use to promote their message or have a more catered version of what they want distributed.

Q: China’s involvement has grown at the same time that private and publicly funded journalism in the west is shrinking. What’s the future of international news? Do you see state-backed agencies becoming a major part of international news coverage for many people?

A: It's certainly true that as Western governments have had to withdraw their global image of a free press, China is filling that gap, and that is very problematic for free media around the world. I certainly think that China's model of a state-centric media is, that is the one that they are exporting. But I don't know if that means that there is a global trend towards more state media. I think what we need to see is more support from western governments for independent media of all kinds, and support for outlets that can distribute information in the face of this rise of China.

Q: What are the main challenges for free media in Georgia? As the recent FH country report said “democratic trajectory showed signs of improvement but the progress has stagnated in recent years.” What contributed to this stagnation and where does Georgia stand in this regard in the region?

A: Georgia is actually a good performer among its neighbors. It's the best in the caucuses. It's actually the best in Eurasia as a whole in our ratings. But it does face a lot of challenges and it is sort of an average performer globally. I think the two main challenges that we're seeing in Georgia are the influence of oligarchs in the political process and the fact that these unelected individuals are having sway over the political process. And secondly, the rule of law and a lot of legislative and executive interference in the judicial system, which doesn't allow it to function as an independent institution.

Q: And Serbia — same question re: challenges there, and factors that have contributed to its designation? (report notes that an environment of intimidation and harassment inhibits journalists’ day to day work).

A: So in Serbia we're really seeing the prime example, along with Hungary, of a country that has a democratically elected leader who has now used his position of power to take control of the media and to broadcast the message that supports him remaining in power. So we're seeing a lot of intimidation, verbal intimidation of journalists; not so much physical intimidation, although there has been some, a feeling that journalists cannot count on the protection of the government for them to do their jobs. Also, a lot of regulatory pressure, using government advertising to reward friendly outlets and to financially punish critical outlets. We're also seeing, so Serbia has very robust laws that meet international standards as an EU candidate, but it then uses the laws that it has to punish journalists, for instance, through crippling defamation lawsuits that are civil in nature, but financially burdensome.

Q: Just as freedom of the press can deteriorate, you do mention some encouraging examples of democratic progress that have seen parallel gains in media environments (Ethiopia, Malaysia, Armenia, Ecuador, Gambia). Where are we seeing these improvements, and is there any one lesson we can take away from these examples?

A: So we're definitely seeing parallel improvements in the countries where we're seeing democratic progress. We're also seeing progress in the independence and the freedom for the media. And that is yet another indication of the importance of free media for freedom in the political process, but also the way that the media will spring to life when there is a political opening. And the examples that you cite are all great examples of places where we've seen this. We're not seeing regional trends at this point. It's sort of too soon to say that this is going to be the reversal of the downward trend that we're seeing, but we definitely have a lot of hope in those places and hope that it will spread to some of the countries like Sudan and Algeria, in Venezuela, where the population is really fighting right now.

Q: Anything to add?

A: I think that the main thing that I would emphasize is that the importance of free media really is because of the ability that it gives the population to hold their leaders to account. And that's why the decline in press freedom is so dangerous for democracy as a whole, and we hope that these positive trends will pick up, but we do have very grave concerns at this time.

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