Global press freedom has slipped to its lowest level in over a decade, but South Africa has improved its position thanks to the stall in the signing of the Protection of State Information Bill into law.
This is according to a new report by Freedom House, which provides analytical reports and numerical ratings for the state of freedom in the media in 197 countries – a role it has played since 1980.
The group says that the global decline in press freedom was driven in part by major regression in several Middle Eastern states, including Egypt, Libya, and Jordan; marked setbacks in Turkey, Ukraine, and a number of countries in East Africa; and deterioration in the relatively open media environment of the United States.
“We see declines in media freedom on a global level, driven by governments’ efforts to control the message and punish the messenger,” said Karin Karlekar, project director of the report.
“In every region of the world last year, we found both governments and private actors attacking reporters, blocking their physical access to newsworthy events, censoring content, and ordering politically motivated firings of journalists.”
“In 2013 we saw more cases of states targeting foreign reporters and media outlets,” Karlekar added.
“Russian and Chinese authorities declined to renew or threatened to withhold visas for prominent foreign correspondents, but the new Egyptian government went a step further by detaining a number of Al-Jazeera staff on charges of supporting terrorism.”
In the Americas, the regional average score worsened to its lowest level in five years, and just 2% of the population in Latin America lived in Free media environments.
In Asia-Pacific, only 5% of the region’s population had access to Free media in 2013.
Eurasia saw the “overwhelming majority” of people in the region – 97% – living in ‘Not Free’ media environments, while Europe enjoys the highest level of press freedom.
“But the regional (European) average score registered the second-largest drop worldwide in 2013,” Freedom House said.
In the Middle East and North Africa, only 2% of the region’s people lived in Free media environments, while the vast majority, 84%, lived in ‘Not Free’ countries or territories.
Closer to home, in Sub-Saharan Africa, the majority of people – 56% – live in countries with Partly Free media.
“Improvements in the legal and economic spheres in 2013 were balanced by declines in the political category,” Freedom House said.
South Africa dodged a bullet
Looking at South Africa, with a media freedom score of 33, the country ranks 69th out of 197 countries, overall, and second in Sub-Saharan Africa after Namibia.
Over the past decade, from a worst level in 1993 (38), South Africa’s level of press freedom improved to its best index score of 23 in 2000 and 2001, followed by a gradual decline to 35 in 2012.
2013 marks a two index point improvement from last year’s report.
“South Africa’s recent trend of decline was halted as the controversial Protection of State Information Bill — which would have allowed government officials and state agencies to withhold a wide range of information in the national interest or on national security grounds — remained stalled after President Jacob Zuma failed to sign it in 2013,” Freedom House said.
Freedom house classifies South Africa’s press as Partly Free, while internet freedom is marked as completely free.
According to Freedom house, Egypt, Syria, India and the Central African Republic are amongst the countries which have seen a decline in press freedom since 2009, led by Greece which saw the biggest jump, losing 17 points.
Meanwhile, African nations such as Algeria, Malawi, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger and even Zimbabwe all improved their press freedom between 2009 and 2013, led by Libya and Tunisia which improved 32 points.