With media freedom eroding to the point that the free press is in danger of virtual extinction, online innovations highlight the great promise of digital tools, US watchdog Freedom House said in its annual media report, titled “Freedom and the Media: A Downward Spiral,” according to the Ahval news website.
“In countries facing drastic and sudden declines in press freedom, the internet can be an important redoubt,” said Freedom House, pointing out that almost 150 news outlets have been closed in Turkey since the 2016 coup attempt, as hundreds of journalists have faced spurious charges of supporting terrorism.
“Those who have been forced to leave Turkey altogether, such as Yavuz Baydar and Can Dündar, have broadcast independent news from overseas on new platforms like Ahval and Özgürüz,” Freedom House said in a report on social media, published on Wednesday along with the media report. “Though officially blocked, their coverage remains accessible on most social media services and via virtual private networks (VPNs) that enable users to skirt government censorship.”
Public broadcasters from France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States launched a Turkish-language YouTube channel, +90, to promote free speech. “Since it is based overseas,” Freedom House said of +90, “Turkish authorities upset over its coverage would need to convince the Silicon Valley–based hosting company to censor a US government–funded news service.”
This highlights the dark side of digital media, which malicious state actors manipulate to advance their agendas, according to Freedom House. Turkish authorities have in recent years blocked Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Twitter, Google Drive and other online tools, while the government manages an army of Twitter bots that disseminate pro-government views.
In its annual “Freedom in the World report,” Freedom House found freedom of expression under sustained attack, particularly online discussions among citizens. “The explosion of criminal cases for ‘insulting the president’ in Turkey — more than 20,000 investigations and 6,000 prosecutions in 2017 alone — is one of the most glaring examples of this global trend.”
Freedom House linked the global erosion of press freedom to right-wing populism, like that of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
“Populist leaders present themselves as the defenders of an aggrieved majority against liberal elites and ethnic minorities whose loyalties they question, and argue that the interests of the nation, as they define it, should override democratic principles like press freedom, transparency, and open debate,” said Freedom House.
Social media tools have emerged as a key element of today’s media ecosystem. “They dramatically expand access to information and freedom of expression, and in repressive and troubled countries they remain a lifeline to journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens attempting to exercise their democratic rights,” said Freedom House, calling on citizens and governments to protect and encourage the use of such tools.
Freedom House sees media freedom deteriorating around the world, with new forms of repression taking hold, particularly in Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East.
“If democratic powers cease to support media independence at home and impose no consequences for its restriction abroad, the free press corps could be in danger of virtual extinction,” said Freedom House.