A free press is essential in a healthy and functioning democracy.
But press freedom is still being threatened and eroded.
The Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Index measures the degree of freedom available to journalists in 180 countries. Until 2021, the Index assigned each country a score from 0 (the best score) to 100 (the worse score).
From 2013 to 2021, the mean average score for all countries got worse, rising from 36.3 to 38.
Norway is the most favorable country in the world for press freedom.
The UK and France are only deemed "satisfactory" for press freedom.
The US and Canada are also only deemed "satisfactory."
Russia's situation is classed as "very serious."
North Korea is the lowest-ranked country on the Index.
Meanwhile, the amount of people who use the Internet has more than doubled since 2008. We've also seen incredible growth in the use of digital media, including the arrival of tools and services such as Instagram, WhatsApp, Telegram, and TikTok.
Could a rise in the popularity of digital services, coupled with the technological advances that come with this, be a threat to the freedom of the press?
To mark UNESCO's World Press Freedom Day 2022, which focuses on the theme "Journalism Under Digital Siege", we're highlighting three ways the Internet and advances in technology are threatening press freedoms.
1. Online harassment of journalists
The harassment of journalists isn't a new threat. But the rise of digital tech and social media makes it easy for members of the public to track down journalists and harass them through email, instant messaging, social media, and doxing – sharing private or identifiable information about them online.
In a 2020 article titled "Mob Censorship: Online Harassment of US Journalists in Times of Digital Hate and Populism", Silvio Waisbord examines how online harassment – what he calls "mob censorship" – threatens press freedom in western countries.
The article highlights how the politics of right-wing populism drives online harassment and how "press haters" can easily network with each other online.
It also shows how journalists are more likely to be a target for harassment when they're defined by visible markers of social identity, such as gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and religion.
This can lead them to self-censor their work or avoid covering certain topics – or even leave the profession altogether.
2. Surveillance of journalists and sources
Before the digital revolution, monitoring people's activities and communications might have involved intercepting letters, tapping telephones, or physical observation.
Information technology now means this type of surveillance can be done on a mass scale and from any location using methods such as hacking, data interception, and installing spyware.
Philip Di Salvo highlights the impact of digital surveillance on journalists in a 2021 article, "Investigative Journalists and Internet Surveillance". It examines the threat surveillance has on journalists' safety as well as the restrictions it puts on their work.
Surveillance also has a significant impact on the anonymous sources and whistle-blowers that journalists rely on to investigate governments and large institutions.
In 2021's "The End of the Affair", Anthony L. Fargo examines how mass surveillance threatens the relationships between journalists and their sources. The article also highlights how journalists can combat this threat.
Mass surveillance is likely to be an ongoing threat to the freedom of the press, even in democracies. In France, the prime minister has the power to monitor the French population without judicial control, while Poland's 2016 surveillance law allows enforcement agencies to access citizens’ Internet and telecommunication usage data. Similar laws apply in Switzerland.
3. Censorship of digital journalism
We've already seen how "mob censorship" can erode press freedoms. There's evidence that governments are also taking steps to censor digital journalism.
Lambrini Papadopoulou and Theodora A. Maniou investigated threats to press freedom against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic in their study, "'Lockdown' on Digital Journalism?"
Their findings included:
- Hungary adopting a "Coronavirus law" that allows the Government to decide whether a media report is true or false and impose prison sentences for spreading "fake news"
- Governments imprisoning critical journalists and confiscating their equipment
- Governments ordering all media not to print or broadcast any "personal opinions" about COVID-19
- Politicians or figures in positions of high authority initiating smear campaigns against critical reporters or media outlets
- Countries such as India, Ethiopia, Iran, and Egypt forcing Internet service providers to slow their services to impact digital journalists' ability to send messages, share images, and watch live streams
- Exclusion of controversial media from state funding schemes
- Governments prohibiting journalists from accessing reliable sources of data and information
The article concludes by asking, "Are we seeing a temporary 'lockdown' on digital journalism or a new normality in which press freedom will be acutely affected?"
- The Dynamics of Influence on Press Freedom in Different Media Systems: A Comparative Study by Theodora A. Maniou in Journalism Practice
- Online Harassment and Its Implications for the Journalist–Audience Relationship by Seth C. Lewis, Rodrigo Zamith, and Mark Coddington in Digital Journalism
- Double-edged knife: practices and perceptions of technology and digital security among Mexican journalists in violent contexts by Rubén Arnoldo González and Frida V. Rodelo in Tapuya: Latin American Science, Technology and Society
- Trolling Journalists and the Risks of Digital Publicity by Silvio Waisbord in Journalism Practice
- Protecting Journalists' Sources Without a Shield: Four Proposals by Anthony L. Fargo in Communication Law and Policy
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