Media Watch

SA press freedom holding up internationally

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It might surprise many, but despite government onslaughts and a global decline in media freedom South Africa is still doing well and ranks well above countries like the United States.

The just published World Press Freedom Index 2015 by the organisation Reporters Without Borders, looking back on 2014, ranks the performance of 180 countries according to a range of criteria that include media pluralism and independence, respect for the safety and freedom of journalists, and the legislative, institutional and infrastructural environment in which the media operate.

Scandinavian countries occupy the three top spots in the rankings. For the fifth year in a row Finland is in the top position, followed by Norway and Denmark – probably due to the distance between these countries and any form of conflict.

On the African continent South Africa’s neighbour, Namibia, takes the top spot, being rated 17th among the 180 countries ranked. It is followed by Ghana in the 22nd spot internationally and South Africa in position 39.

Surprisingly the US ranks ten places below South Africa in the 49th position and France just one above in the 38th position. Other notable countries below South Africa are Japan (61), Mauritius (68), Italy (73), Greece (91) and Israel (101).

Well into the bottom half of the table is Zimbabwe in the 131st position, Angola (123), India (136), Russia (152) and Swaziland (155), with China (176) well towards the bottom position occupied by Eritrea.

In general the report notes that the index highlights “the worldwide deterioration in freedom of information in 2014. Beset by wars, the growing threat from non-state operatives, violence during demonstrations and the economic crisis, media freedom is in retreat on all five continents”.

Conflict, religious censorship and the rise of non-state actors such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Boko Haram were among the main reasons for decline in press freedom.

Two-thirds of the 180 countries surveyed performed less well than in the previous year. The annual global indicator, which measures the overall level of violations of freedom of information in 180 countries year by year, has risen to 3 719, an 8% increase over 2014 and almost 10% compared with 2013.

And it is not just geopolitical conditions and government actions that are a threat to media freedom. On Italy for instance, the report notes that “threats from the mafia, among others, and unjustified defamation suits, skyrocketed”, sending the country 24 places down to 73rd in the world.

While South Africa’s position remained basically static, moving up three places from 42nd the previous year and Namibia and Ghana are among the top 25, other parts of Africa did not do that well.

“The region that is bottom of the freedom of information list, North Africa and the Middle East, this year once again contained information ‘black holes’. Comprising entire regions, these are controlled by non-state groups in which independent information simply does not exist,” the report states.

For South Africa where there are increasing signs of battles for especially political control over the media, there is a lesson to be learned from what happened to Andorra.

“It fell by 27 places as a result of the many conflicts of interests and the great difficulty experienced by journalists in covering the activities of Andorran banks, coupled with the lack of any legal protection for freedom of information, such as the confidentiality of journalists’ sources,” the report states.

Growing concerns in the West

It is also clear from the report that it is not all moonlight and roses for the media in the West.

In the global trend towards a decline in media freedom the “European Union-Balkans region is in the lead by far, but nonetheless recorded the biggest fall between the 2014 and 2015 editions. This disturbing trend reflects a twofold phenomenon: the excesses of some member countries on the one hand and the inability of EU mechanisms to contain them on the other,” it is stated.

The European Union indeed recorded a bigger decline in 2015 than in the 2014 Index, exposing the limits of its “democratic model” and highlighting the inability of its mechanisms to halt the erosion. The EU appears to be swamped by a certain desire on the part of some member states to compromise on freedom of information. As a result, the gaps between members are widening – EU countries are ranked from 1st to 106th in the Index, an unusual spread.
In the United States, which dropped three places compared to the previous annual index, 2014 was marked by judicial harassment of New York Times investigative reporter James Risen in connection with the trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer charged under the Espionage Act with giving him classified information.

US journalists are also still not protected by a federal shield law that would guarantee their right not to name their sources or reveal other confidential information about their work.

Meanwhile, at least 15 journalists were arbitrarily arrested during clashes between police and demonstrators protesting against black teenager Michael Brown’s fatal shooting by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

by Piet Coetzer

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