Freedom of expression is at a ten-year low, study says

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

It often feels as though free speech and the press are under attack around the world, and there’s new evidence that this is in fact the case: according to a new report from the UK-based charity Article 19 (named for one of the clauses in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) freedom of expression has reached a ten-year low globally, as a result of what the report calls “digital authoritarianism” and threats against journalists. Governments in a number of countries have been increasing online surveillance and cracking down on content and behavior that indicates dissent, the report says. The survey notes that while there were some improvements in the overall freedom of expression environment around the world between 2008 and 2013, these gains were eroded in the five subsequent years. According to Article 19’s analysis, more than 65 countries with a combined population of over 5 billion people have seen their freedom of expression decline over the past decade.

The report looked at what it argues are five key metrics of freedom of expression: 1) Civic space, which looks at indicators related to the ability of individuals and civil society organisations to associate and be active; 2) Digital, which measures online censorship and freedom of online discussion, and covers internet shut-downs by governments, censorship of social media, and approach to online content moderation; 3) Media, which measures factors such as government censorship and self-censorship, laws that limit online expression, etc. 4) Protection, which measures threats to the safety of journalists and other communicators and human rights defenders are rising, including murders and imprisonment, as well as judicial harassment, and 5) Transparency, which looks at whether laws are transparent and enforced in a predictable manner, whether there are effective oversight bodies, impartial public administration, and so on.

Legal threats to freedom of expression continue in a number of countries, the report says, “from broad and ambiguous national security laws to laws that unduly limit online expression, as well as new frameworks that delegate blocking and removal to online platforms, which often do so without transparency or accountability.” That latter comment is clearly directed at Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, which have been under fire for some time for their poorly communicated and often haphazard attempts to block hate speech and other bad behavior. According to Article 19, media freedom and digital free expression “are both lower than they were a decade ago in every region of the world except the Middle East and North Africa.” Executive director Thomas Hughes said that many of the threats are not new — state violence, judicial harassment, etc. — but the group has also seen an increase in governments “using digital technology to surveil their citizens, restrict content and shut down communications.”

The organization said the number of alerts received by the Council of Europe about harassment and violence directed towards journalists has almost doubled every year since the Council’s alert program was launched in 2015. In 2018, 99 journalists were killed – 21 more than in 2017. At the end of 2018, more than 250 journalists were in prison (also up from the year before) and more than 10 percent of those were being held on “false news” charges. According to Article 19’s analysis, the most alerts about harassment and violence came from Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and France, and more than half of the alerts cited the state as the source of the threat. The report also notes that 2018 saw a clear trend towards “verbal abuse and public stigmatisation of the media and individual journalists in many member states, including by elected officials and especially in the run-up to elections.”

One of the biggest factors in the decline of free expression and the free press, Article 19 says, is the rise of “strongman” politics in a number of countries, characterized by old leaders clinging to power and new leaders coming into power by ignoring or altering a country’s constitution, relying on networks of cronyism and corruption, and promoting a “muscular form of majoritarian populism, which excludes, polarises, and silences, railing against the speed-bumps of democratic institutions and limits on the exercise of power.” Sounds like a number of countries we could name.

Here’s more on threats to freedom of expression:

Unprecedented control: In addition to the Article 19 overview, a new report prepared by a group of journalistic organizations — including the International Press Institute, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, and Reporters Without Borders — says that in the past decade, the government in Hungary has “systematically dismantled media independence, freedom and pluralism, distorted the media market and divided the journalistic community in the country, achieving a degree of media control unprecedented in an EU member state.” The report notes that the construction of a pro-government media empire “serves as a vast propaganda machine for the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, insulating large parts of the public from access to critical news and information.”

Careful what you wish for: Last week, comedian and actor Sacha Baron Cohen gave an impassioned speech after receiving an award from the Anti-Defamation League (the speech was also published as an op-ed in the Washington Post), in which he railed against Facebook and YouTube and their reluctance to remove offensive content, including misinformation. But as Verge writer Casey Newton pointed out in his Interface newsletter, the desire to have someone force these companies to remove hate speech or misinformation can backfire. To see how, we need look no further than Singapore’s new “fake news” law, which has already been used to force an opposition politician to modify a Facebook post to include the government’s position on the topic he mentioned in his post, along with a large banner across the original saying “False.”

The press as foreign agents: Russian president Vladimir Putin has signed a law that will allow Russia to declare journalists and bloggers as “foreign agents,” a move that critics say will allow the Russian government to target critics of the administration. According to the new law, both Russian citizens and foreigners who work with media or distribute content and receive money from foreign organizations will be declared to be “foreign agents.” It’s not clear who exactly will fall under the new definition, but some critics warn that journalists and their sources could be defined in this way, and potentially even people who share content on social networks. More than 60 prominent journalists, writers, and activists urged the president not to sign the law in an open letter sent last week, but Putin decided to ignore their advice.

Other notable stories:

John Elkann, scion of the Agnelli industrial dynasty and chairman of Fiat Chrysler, is acquiring a holding company that owns two of Italy’s national newspapers, a dozen regional and local titles, an investigative weekly and a national radio station. The Agnelli family investment company, Exor, is buying a controlling stake in the holding company known as GEDI from the billionaire De Benedetti family, which will give the Agnelli family control of La Repubblica, La Stampa, the weekly magazine L’Espresso and a radio station called Radio Deejay. The Agnelli family holding company also owns a 43.4 per cent stake in the publisher of The Economist.

Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, writes in the most recent issue of CJR about the fact-checking industry, and finds that there is now a whole sector of the industry that is fueled by philanthropy, including funding from Google, Facebook, and a number of nonprofit foundations. And many of these are not affiliated with traditional media organizations, she notes: “Last year, forty-one out of forty-seven fact-checking organizations were part of, or affiliated with, a media company; this year, the figure is thirty-nine out of sixty.” In other words, Bell writes, “the number of fact-checking organizations is growing, but their association with traditional journalism outlets is weakening.”

Veteran Arizona-based reporter Nick Martin announced that he is launching a news site called The Informant that will report on racist extremism in America. Martin is a former reporter for Talking Points Memo, and has also written for The Daily Beast and the Southern Poverty Law Center. He also worked for the Arizona Guardian, a subscription-only website that covered the state Capitol, and previously founded and ran a news site called Heat City, after working at the East Valley Tribune. “I believe hate and extremism chip away at freedom and equality — foundations of our Democracy,” Martin said on Twitter. “And I know there are people out there who would rather blow the whole thing up than see us united.”

CBS Corp. and its sister company Viacom — owner of Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, and Comedy Central — reunited officially on Wednesday. The two companies were once part of the same company, but were separated into distinct entities more than a decade ago. They are both controlled by National Amusements, a theater chain that became a media and entertainment conglomerate under Sumner Redstone, who is 96 years old and in failing health. His daughter Shari has been looking to put CBS and Viacom back together again ever since she assumed day-to-day control of National Amusements in 2016.

Apple is expanding its Apple News offerings with a daily email newsletter, according to a report Wednesday. Previously, users could opt in to receive email alerts from Apple News about select featured stories, but now they can subscribe to a daily news roundup with what the company says are “top news, analysis, and fascinating features every morning, collating the best stories from the most trusted sources.” Apple says the News app is popular with iPhone users, but publishers have reportedly found it difficult to monetize the audiences that they get from the service.

The Information, a subscription service devoted to technology news and analysis, is launching a standalone news summary app called Tech Top 10, which the company says will give users “the most important tech news happening now and why it matters” without forcing them to search through Twitter or “watered-down general news sites.” The app is $29.99 a year or $2.99 a month.

The Telegraph newspaper in the UK says it now has more digital subscribers than print ones for the first time in its 164-year history, according to the Press Gazette. The company said it has 420,000 paying subscribers, and that subscriptions are currently growing at their “fastest rate ever; double what it was last year.” Chief executive Nick Hugh told Bloomberg last week the Telegraph was in a “great position” after digital subscriptions grew by about 81,000 in a year. “To be able to grow at that rate should give great comfort to the market that actually we will very soon be able to demonstrate a very clear sustainable path to ongoing growth,” he said.

Rolling Stone is turning “The Rolling Stone Interview,” its 50-year-old franchise featuring conversations with notable names in culture and music, into a video series, MediaPost reports. The series is rolling out four episodes initially, including interviews with Coldplay’s Chris Martin, The Black Keys, and Sheryl Crow. Rolling Stone’s editors and writers will lead each conversation, including founder and editorial director Jann Wenner. All of the content will be available exclusively on the magazine’s website, the company said. Penske Media, which owns Variety and a number of other magazines, bought a controlling stake in Rolling Stone in 2017.

Two publishers of prestigious scientific journals, Springer Nature and Wiley, said this week that they would re-evaluate papers they previously published on Tibetans, Uighurs and other minority groups. The papers were written or co-written by scientists backed by the Chinese government, and the two publishers want to make sure the authors got consent from the people they studied, according to the New York Times. Springer Nature, which publishes the influential journal Nature, also said that it was toughening its guidelines to make sure scientists get consent, particularly if those people are members of a vulnerable group.

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