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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

World Press Freedom Day 2014: State of World Press Freedom

Douglas Frantz
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs

Dr. Karin Karlekar, Project Director, Freedom House's "Freedom of the Press"
Washington, DC
May 1, 2014




Date: 05/01/2014 Location: Washington DC Description: Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Doug Frantz and Freedom House's ''Freedom of the Press'' Project Director Dr. Karin Karlekar brief at the Washington Foreign Press Center on ''World Press Freedom Day 2014:  State of World Press Freedom.'' - State Dept Image

2:00 pm
THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: Thank you all for coming. It’s especially nice to see so many people here on such a beautiful day.

I was a journalist for 35 years, and am now a government official. Sometimes people say that I am a recovering journalist. And I say, “No, I’m not recovered. It’s not a sickness from which you have to recover. It’s something that I hold very dear in my heart.” So getting to speak with you today of the necessity of a free press worldwide marries both of my jobs, both as U.S. government official and as a former journalist.

I want to assure you first of all that Secretary Kerry on down to every employee at the State Department understands that democracy and liberty depend on a free press. The way a government responds to criticism is what holds governments accountable. We may not always like what’s written or spoken about us. We may not always agree with it. But we understand in this country the ultimate value of freedom of the press. Shutting down opposing views, whether by jailing journalists or trying to block social media sites, or worse, is not a demonstration of a government’s strength; it’s a symptom of a government’s weakness.

Earlier this month, I visited four countries to talk with journalists and journalism students and members of civil society and government officials about press freedom. I was in Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan and South Africa and Turkey. I found positives in all four countries, and I found issues of concern in a couple of those countries. In one country, a senior government official told me that the United States should help close down one of the only independent publishing presses in the country because the president didn’t like what some of the newspapers printed there were saying. In another country, I saw the government’s efforts to block Twitter and YouTube, and I realized that these were only part of the efforts there to muzzle the press.

But I was also heartened by the vigor of the reporters and editors with whom I met, and by their understanding that freedom of expression and a free press are universal human rights. As Secretary Kerry said earlier this week when he spoke to an online freedom forum in Estonia – he said, “I am convinced that these tactics will fail the test of history.” When we stand up for freedom of expression anywhere and everywhere that it’s threatened, including with our friends and our allies, that makes all the difference in the world.

So I’m happy to stand here with Dr. Karin Karlekar of the Freedom House as she presents her organization’s latest Freedom of the Press report. Before I turn the mike over to her, I just want to say a couple words about the U.S. ranking in the new Freedom House survey. Unfortunately, we slipped a couple of notches. Partly I think that’s because of legitimate questions about the ability of reporters to protect their sources. As I said, I spent 35 years as a journalist both here and overseas, and I understand the necessity of protecting sources. I understand the value of leaks from a journalist’s perspective.

So I do want to point out that, in defense of the United States and this Administration, despite the massive leak of very damaging national security information by Edward Snowden, the U.S. government has not threatened reporters or publications involved in disseminating that information. That’s not who we are. That’s not what should happen in a democracy. As I said at the outset, we may not like everything we read, and in fact, we may see things that are very damaging to our national security, and – in the case of Edward Snowden – have, I think, made Americans and other people around the world more vulnerable to extremist threats.

But we don’t go after the messenger. In the same way you don’t punish the technology, like Twitter or YouTube or other social media sites. You don’t punish the technology; you punish the leaker. Edward Snowden should come back home and face trial. It’s for the Justice Department and the courts to decide whether he’s punished and what that punishment is. He should come back. That’s his responsibility as a leaker. But we’re not going after the publications that disseminated that information.

And now I’ll turn it over to Dr. Karlekar.

MS. KALEKAR: Thank you very much, everybody. And I’ll just try and give a quick overview and briefing of our findings for this year before opening the floor to questions and answers.

So to start with an overview of the findings, as many of you may know, our annual report entitled “Freedom of the Press” has been produced since 1980. And we try and capture the state of press freedom in the world every year, covering all types of media in 197 countries and territories, and rating each country on a numerical scale as well as classifying countries as free, partly free, or not free. And these are the colors that you see on the maps that we produce every year.

In terms of what we try and look at in the index, we look at the ability of journalists to do their jobs without fear of repercussions, as well as the ability of people in each country to receive diverse news and information. Our 2014 report, which covers calendar year 2013, has found that the global level of press freedom has fallen to its lowest level in a decade. And this is a very worrying trend. We’ve also found that the share of the world’s population which lives in countries with a free press remained at 14 percent, while the vast majority live in either partly free or not free media environments.

In terms of our regional trends this year, we found that every region – except sub-Saharan Africa, where the regional average score leveled off and there were both positive and negative trends – every other region showed declines, with the Middle East and North Africa suffering the worst deterioration. And in terms of significant numerical shifts in country scores, which we classify as a country where the score moves three or more points in a single year, we found that declines overall outnumbered gains by 15 to 11 countries.

Looking next at our status changes for the year, which is when a country changes category from, let’s say, free to partly free, we had 10 status changes for the year. And these were fairly balanced between positive and negative movements. So moving from free to partly free this year was Nauru, a small island in the Pacific. We had five countries, very important countries, moving from partly free to not free, including Libya, South Sudan, Turkey, Ukraine, and Zambia, and those were the negative shifts. On the positive side, moving from partly free to free we had Israel. And moving from not free to partly free we had three countries: Algeria, Côte d’Ivoire, and Paraguay.

I’ll turn first to look and summarize some of the good news that we had, because there definitely were a few positive trends. We saw that the significant gains that took place, took place largely in Africa. Eight of the eleven significant improvements were in sub-Saharan Africa, and primarily in West and Southern Africa. We saw that country improvements across the board were largely driven by three factors. One was the opening of the broadcast space and a growing ability of private firms to operate television and radio outlets. We also found across the board, but particularly in some of these countries experiencing improvements, that a greater access to a variety of news via online media, social media, and international outlets was providing more diversity in access to news and information. So that’s a positive trend across the board. And we did see that in – particularly, again, in Africa – in a number of countries with new governments, there was an improved respect for legal and constitutional protections for the press.

However, as I said, the overall trend in 2013 was negative. We saw that press freedom was under attack in a range of environments, and important authoritarian states such as China and Russia continue to place broad restrictions on the media. We saw backsliding in several key countries, including Egypt, Turkey, and Ukraine, as well as several countries in East Africa. Even freer countries, as the Assistant Secretary has noted, have witnessed negative trends. This year – past year we noticed that the United States had its most significant decline in a decade, primarily due to efforts by the government to control information on national security issues and the impact this had on journalists’ ability to protect their sources, and to work free from surveillance and legal harassment.

On a global level, we saw that the use of restrictive laws to jail journalists, as well as retaliatory physical attacks and murders, and the impunity that often accompanies it have reached record levels, and these remain key ways of restricting the press. In particular, I’ll point to countries such as Ethiopia, which are continuing to jail journalists under anti-terrorism laws. And then we have countries where there’s extremely high murder rates of journalists, so – countries like Pakistan and like Mexico, there are very, very high murder rates and high levels of impunity in these cases.

Additionally, the declines in 2013 were driven by a number of additional factors, which I’ll outline here. And we looked at these declines across the board and tried to highlight some of the thematic things that we saw that were impacting press freedom.

So the first thematic topic I’ll focus on is the idea of attacking the messenger. In many countries last year there were unprecedented civic protest demonstrations, and journalists’ ability to cover these types of breaking news events was threatened. In some cases they were caught up in protests that turned violent, while in others they were targeted specifically for being journalists by governments who did not want these types of stories to be covered. The most egregious cases – some of them were in Ukraine last year. Several journalists were caught up – several dozen journalists were caught up in attacks at the end of the year, targeted attacks. But we also saw a number of cases in Turkey and Egypt, and to a lesser extent in countries such as Brazil, Venezuela, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Jordan, and Uganda.

We also saw an increased targeting of foreign media during the year. So in many countries – particularly the more restrictive environments, where foreign media do provide a way of getting the information out to a global audience, and are able sometimes to cover more sensitive stories than their local counterparts – in some of these countries, such as Russia and China, there were attempts to either expel reporters or to threaten to withhold visa extensions for reporters from prominent outlets. Meanwhile in Egypt, the new government went even further, targeting Al-Jazeera in particular, harassing and detaining journalists throughout the year. And at the end of the year, three Al-Jazeera journalists were in jail, charged with terrorism-related offenses. Other colleagues remained in jail without even being charged.

Third, we had a clamping down on new media in a number of environments throughout the year. As new and social media become more important conduits for news and information, we’ve seen multi-pronged efforts to control online speech by countries such as China and Vietnam, both in terms of sort of harassment of bloggers as well as using legal penalties to persecute online speech. We also saw other countries, though, imposing restrictions on this relatively open sphere, either through introducing new legislation to cover online content, as in Jordan, or by censoring websites, as in Zambia.

And the fourth thing we really wanted to highlight this year was looking at ways of controlling news content via ownership. We saw that in a number of countries there were ownership changes of the media in key outlets, and that new owners, particularly ones who had close connections to the government or the ruling party in the country, then would alter the editorial lens of the outlet, make it less independent, and in some cases dismiss outspoken staff. In Turkey, for example, several dozen journalists lost their jobs during the year because of sensitive coverage of controversial issues or things that the government was not happy with them covering. We also saw cases in Ukraine and in Venezuela.

I’ll end by highlighting our annual Worst of the Worst category. And this is really looking at the countries with the most restrictive media environments around the world. This is a set of eight countries, and actually this list did not change from last year. They all remain incredibly restrictive, both in terms of journalists’ ability to do their job, and as well in terms of access to information. So the eight countries this year again are Belarus, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Overall, this year’s findings indicate that even as the amount of news and information in the world increases, threats to media freedom remain pervasive and multi-faceted, and are a continuing cause for concern. And now I’d like to conclude and open the floor to questions.

MODERATOR: Thank you. So remember that when you get called on, please wait for the microphone, identify yourself and your outlet. And if you have a particular briefer that you would like to address the question, please indicate that as well. So yes, please.

QUESTION: I’d like to ask my question to Mr. Assistant Secretary, if I may. My name is Ilhan Tanir from Turkish Press. I know that you were just in Turkey, Mr. Assistant Secretary. I got couple quick questions on Turkey. Obviously, Turkey now – Turkey’s media is now not free, from partly free from last year and previous years. My first question is general: What did go wrong with Turkey that it has been sliding back, not only in press freedom but almost every single index – freedom indexes that show democratic standards?

And my second question is: We have two more elections are coming up in Turkey. We just came out on one. Obviously, Turkey’s judiciary is under attack, as U.S. State Department stated openly. That’s why I’m repeating. And now the press is not free. How are you going to – or how do you think the elections will be held under the circumstances that two of the very important branches within the government now under attack?

And my final question is, over a hundred journalists got fired since the Giza protests. I am one of those for a couple of weeks. So my question is: How can you rate – or explain to us that U.S., Turkey’s ally, have been helping on these issues, which we know that this President and this Administration actually has been talking more about the strategic issues and other issues, but when it comes to standards of democracy, we don’t hear much? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: That’s quite a list. I think on the “what went wrong” question, I think I would start by saying take a look at what has gone right in Turkey in the 12 years that Prime Minister Erdogan and AK Party have been in charge. The economy is much stronger, per capita income is much higher, the overall GDP more than tripled. More recently, we have seen good overtures to Armenia by Prime Minister Erdogan just last week, we have seen the old taboo of not talking about the Kurds, not paying attention to the Kurds, that’s been lifted. So there has been progress, and there’s been good progress. There’s been progress on some fronts in the European accession process.

But what concerns me is some of the issues that you raised, and that is we don’t want to see Turkey replace the old taboos with new taboos. There needs to be, as there once was, a vibrant, vigorous, free, and independent press in Turkey. As I said in my opening remarks, democracies function best when they have free and independent press, when they have a freedom of expression that extends to everyone, regardless of their political persuasion, regardless of their ethnic background.

And I think what we’ve seen over the last few months, certainly since December 17th in Turkey, is some backsliding. And it’s backsliding that causes concern here in Washington with the Obama Administration. It causes concern and that’s one of the reasons that I went over to Istanbul a couple of weeks ago and sat down with the columnists there and gave them a very long and detailed on-the-record interview about the issues.

And I did that, as I do this today when talking about Turkey, as someone who has deep affection for Turkey. I lived there for almost six years. I love going back. My wife and I both consider those six years the best years of our lives, professionally and personally. And so when I was back a couple of weeks ago and took a hard look about what’s going on in journalism, it raises concerns. It raises concerns about what the next steps are.

One of the points that I made to the Turkish journalists, and I think it’s worth repeating here, is that Turkey’s economy has been growing very successfully over the past decade, but last year there was a bit of a slowdown and this year there’s been a bit of a slowdown. And Turkey really depends on foreign direct investment still to keep that economy growing, to try and push Turkey out of this middle class economic trap that it’s fallen into. And part of that foreign direct investment is dependent on a belief by investors that there’s a rule of law in a country, that there is, in fact, a free press that will be available to keep the government accountable. And so I think actions that detract from the free press, that constrain the free press in Turkey, are ultimately detrimental to Turkey and to its people.

On the presidential election coming up in August, I really shouldn’t get into Turkish politics. I mean, we saw that the parliamentary elections last month were a success for AK party, perhaps less of a success than Prime Minister Erdogan expected, but nonetheless they got 45 percent of the vote. That’s a big vote in Turkey. And I don’t know what’s going to happen in August. I hope that these attempts to block Twitter and the attempt to block – the successful attempt – more successful attempt to block YouTube will be things of the past soon in Turkey.

I worry also about the more structural changes that you alluded to and that Dr. Karlekar mentioned in terms of the ownership within the Turkish media, and I worry about the long-term effect of that. I saw a polarization in the Turkish media that didn’t exist when I lived and worked there, so that is very troubling.

And equally troubling, and on a personal level for you and other friends I have in the Turkish media, losing your job for doing your job is wrong. And that’s something that certainly we try to convey to Turkey as friends and partners. Part of your responsibility as a friend and an ally and a NATO partner of Turkey or any other country is to speak out when you see your friends making what you feel are mistakes. But we do that, again, with the knowledge that Turkey is a vital ally, that Turkey has a long history of democracy. Democracies are organic things. They continue to grow. They can’t remain static. And so Turkey’s democracy needs to continue to grow, and part of that will be a return to a more vigorous and freer press.

QUESTION: My name is Yusif Babanli. I’m with AzerTac, Azerbaijan State Telegraph Agency. My question is to Ms. Karlekar: When you have – our world is moving towards internet, right? Look at Washington Post, a lot of newspapers lose their profits, they move to internet. When you have countries where internet is unimpeded, but it has some problems in the published press, and especially the countries that have an overwhelming majority of the population that have access to internet, direct access to internet, how do you weigh in that component of internet into your decision, whether it’s the country is partly free or not free?

MS. KARLEKAR: Well, we definitely try and look at the issue. For each country, the media mix is slightly different, and different proportion of the population would have access to print, broadcast, and internet. So we really look at the level of people in the country that access the internet, and are ability to access, and where the main news sources are.

In most countries, there is a significant gap between the level of press freedom and internet freedom. There are exceptions to that rule such as China, but in many countries the internet is a relatively open space. So we will take that into account in each country’s score when we look at the ratings. And in many cases, countries do get some credit for having a relatively open internet

space.

QUESTION: What do you mean by – what do you mean by a level (inaudible)?

MS. KARLEKAR: Like the percentage of people, the number of people. So if only, let’s say, 10 percent of the population has access to the internet, then it wouldn’t be considered one of the major news sources in the country because relatively few people have access; whereas, if 80 percent of the people in the country access the internet regularly and are able to do so, that means the internet is a much more important source of news and information.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you for doing this and thanks for our friends at the FPC for hosting this. My name is Andrei Sitov. I am with the Russian News Agency ITAR-TASS here. I have a couple of questions.

The first one is we seem to be hearing different and a bit, in my opinion, contradictory messages over the past few years, where on the one hand you hear, especially the government, proclaiming that the freedom and democracy in the world are on the march, and then groups like your own say that no, freedom is actually declining. So my question to both presenters is: Why is it that in the countries involved, say, in the Arab Spring, in other colored revolutions that Washington seemed to be actually supporting and encouraging, that freedom actually declined after the changes happened? Thank you.

MS. KARLEKAR: Well, generally – I mean, we have seen big improvements in some of these countries. In the Arab Spring countries we saw huge openings, for example, in Tunisia and Libya. And although this year there was backsliding – yeah, yeah, yes – and there was backsliding in Libya this year, but it’s still not at the level it was under Qadhafi. There still is much more media freedom in Libya than there was a few years ago. So some of those openings have continued.

And in general, I would say looking at the Middle East region in particular, we have seen backsliding this year. But when you look at the overall trends over the last five years, the level of press freedom in the Middle East is definitely higher than it was five years ago.

So there are ups and downs. I would say that democracy is not a single-way process, and there can be blips along the road and countries can go backward and forward. In the case of Ukraine, for example, we’ve seen a lot of up-and-down movements over the last five years as well. So I definitely feel like there is – there have been positives, there have been negatives. Our overall level of global press freedom has declined, but that does mask positive movements in a number of countries.

QUESTION: And specifically to Assistant Secretary Frantz, I have a different question. I have here a publication from yesterday from The New York Review of Books, a story by David Cole named “How Many Have We Killed?” On Monday, The New York Times reported that, quote, “The Senate has quietly stripped a provision from an intelligence bill that would have required President Obama to make public each year the number of people killed or injured in targeted killing operations in Pakistan and other countries where the United States uses lethal force,” unquote. “National security officials in the Obama Administration objected strongly to having to notify the public of the results and scope of their dirty work, and the Senate acceded.

So much for what President Obama has called the, quote/unquote, ‘the most transparent administration in history,” end quote.

My question, obviously, is: Do you think that this sort of information is better made public. It’s going to come out anyway, so maybe it’s easier and better to make it public right away? Thank you. If not, then why not? Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: Thanks for the question, Andrei. I believe that there are instances where governments need to keep secrets. I signed an oath when I joined the government to keep classified material secret. I think the operations of unmanned aircraft in various parts of the world are part of a critical national security function of the United States, and details and facts surrounding much of those operations need to remain secret for the national security of the United States.

When I was a journalist, I might have had a slightly different attitude, but I think I was also a responsible journalist. But sometimes secrets need to stay secret.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Right here.

QUESTION: Hi, I’m Julio Marenco with NTN24. Yesterday the deputy spokesperson asked directly the Government of Venezuela to leave the ban that my network is suffering there since the protests began in February. Are you planning on taking that suggestion directly to the diplomatic channels and not only like through the media and through us directly the Venezuelan Government to not only ban the – not only the ban on NTN24 but on other networks that are under the same – that have suffered the same luck in Venezuela?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: The strong public and private position of the United States and of the State Department is that banning television networks is wrong, it’s anti-democratic, and it’s not in the interests of Venezuela or the Venezuelan people. I assure you that those conversations have been occurring on a regular basis through appropriate diplomatic channels, and they will – and they will continue to occur. We can’t tell the Venezuelan Government what to do. We can make suggestions to them both in public, as Marie said from the podium yesterday, and we can certainly do that on a consistent and ongoing basis through private diplomatic channels. I mean, we’re pushing as hard as we can to the best of our ability there.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for your report and for – to Freedom House, and thank you for your remarks supporting the freedoms in Turkey, Doug, actually. But you actually told – voiced these concerns in Turkey too, as you said, when you were – you met with the columnists in Istanbul. But at the same time, are you hesitant also to voice these concerns at the level of Secretary of State? Because assistant of secretary, you are very outspoken on this issue and you were in Turkey and when you are speaking from this podium too, but when it comes to high-level cabinet members or, I mean, high-level U.S. officials, including Secretary of State, is there any concern to raise this – these issues?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: Thanks for the question, Tolga. Issues – relationships between allies like the United States and Turkey are complex, and there are many equities that have to be considered. One of those certainly is our belief that freedom of expression is a universal right and that a free press is an essential element of a democracy, any democracy, American democracy, Swiss democracy, Turkish democracy. And those sentiments have certainly been part of the discussions that Secretary Kerry has had with Foreign Minister Davutoglu over the past few months. I think if I remember right, Secretary Kerry sent out a tweet over his own Twitter account @JohnKerry, which I urge all of you to follow. I think he sent out a tweet there about Twitter. He made some pretty strong statements earlier this week at the Freedom Online conference which he came in via internet to Estonia. So it’s part of our ongoing dialogue with Turkey and with many other countries.

Sometimes it doesn’t seem to some of us, perhaps, like it’s shouted quite loudly enough, and that’s one of the reasons that I went over to Turkey. I mean, I went over because I’m the assistant secretary for public affairs. This is part of my jurisdiction. I also went over because, as I said, I’m a great friend of Turkey’s and I want Turkey to be better. And I think it will be better if it has a freer press. But there are many issues that have to be balanced in a strategic relationship like the one between the United States and Turkey. And this is a vital, longstanding friendship, and we value it very, very much.

QUESTION: Yes. My name’s Peter Li from NTD Television. Could you hear me?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: Yes, I can hear you.

QUESTION: Okay. So I have two questions. The first question is for Mr. Doug Frantz. My question is: I got (inaudible) measures here. I saw throughout 1980s, 1990s, and in 2000, even in 2014, China’s press freedom didn’t change. And my first question is: What’s the major obstacle to make this happen? I mean, China didn’t get any improvements on the freedom – press freedom.

And my second question is for Dr. Karlekar. And is there any measure of target of the government behavior to crack down on media in China, I mean, the clear target like some specific group people, like Falun Gong practitioners or Tibetans or democracy activities? So that’s my second question.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: I think both those questions are probably best addressed by Dr. Karlekar. But I will say that, without going into the history of press freedom in China, I would say that what we’ve seen over the last few years with the Great Wall of China blocking internet access, the efforts to muzzle the New York Times and Bloomberg and other outlets by denying visas for their reporters, by trying to stop press reports that are critical of the government. Those are the signals of a very strong lack of press freedom. And I think that’s one of the reasons why China is where it is on the Freedom House list.

As far as the details, I’ll leave that to Dr. Karlekar.

MS. KARLEKAR: Well, just to follow on from your point, definitely, I mean, what we’ve seen in China is a score that hasn’t really changed that much over the last few years. And I think what we see – I mean, the relative lack of change in the score I think masks the fact there is quite a bit of ferment in China. There are attempts to push back, to try new social media and the internet and the blogosphere, particularly in China, to sort of push some of the boundaries.

But what we’ve seen is that as a platform becomes more successful and as people are using that platform, that that platform then comes under attack by the authorities. So this past year in China, we were really looking at attempts to suppress dissent and information on the microblogosphere, which has become one of the main platforms in China where people were trying to express dissent.

What we’ve also seen, as the assistant secretary mentioned in his remarks, is this crackdown on foreign media last year, particularly U.S.-based outlets, and that was also a concern. But in general in China what we see is I think quite a lot of back and forth, but I don’t see any major changes in the media environment. The print and broadcast are fairly well under state control. We do see some openings on the internet despite the great firewall, but we see a lot of pushback, a lot of repression. We see people being thrown in jail for expressing their opinions; we see journalists being threatened, having to resign from their jobs, if they try and push the boundaries.

And to answer the second part of your question, there are definite redlines on coverage. If people try and discuss the issue of Tibet, of Falun Gong, of Xinjiang, of democracy, those people are the ones being targeted, and it’s very, very common for people to receive visits from the security services or to be, in the worst cases, detained or thrown in jail. So I really don’t see any major changes in the environment. There are little changes back and forth around the margins, but on the whole, China remains a very closed media environment.

MODERATOR: All right. With that, I’m afraid we’ll have to bring this briefing to a close.
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