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Celebrating World Press Freedom Day: The role of a free media for democracy

Disclaimer: Views expressed in this commentary are those of the staff member. This commentary is independent of specific national or political interests. Views expressed do not necessarily represent the institutional position of International IDEA, its Board of Advisers or its Council of Member States.


As Press Freedom Day is celebrated around the world, it provides an important opportunity to highlight the importance of a free media for healthy democracies.

Threats to media freedom are on the rise in a number of countries and these negatively impact the very fundamentals of democracy. A recent report by ARTICLE 19 and V-Dem from November 2017 shows that global media freedom is at the lowest level in a decade. Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2017 points to similar conclusions, highlighting the decline in global press freedom to its lowest point in 13 years. While threats to media freedom used to the be the purview of authoritarian regimes, recent developments indicate that the practice is spreading to both new and established democracies. These worrying trends need to be taken seriously and acted upon as threats to media freedom risk undermining and eroding the pillars of democracy and the trust that people place in it.

In 2017, International IDEA launched its first Global State of Democracy Report, which provides an overview of democratic trends around the world since 1975 (up to 2015). The analysis is based on a democracy index, compiled by International IDEA, with data from V-Dem and a number of other sources.

The index is based on International IDEA’s broad definition of democracy, centered on five main attributes of democracy: representative government, fundamental rights, checks on government, impartial administration and participatory engagement. Media integrity is seen as one of the key dimensions of the checks on government attribute and is measured through five main indicators: whether the major print and broadcast media represent a wide range of political perspectives; if there is a media bias against opposition parties or candidates; whether journalists, publishers or broadcasters accept payments in exchange for altering news coverage; and whether criticism of government and government officials is a common and normal part of the political dialogue in the mediated public sphere. The right to freedom of expression is a fundamental pre-condition for a free media environment and is also included as an indicator in the index.

What do the indicators on media integrity and freedom of expression in International IDEA’s democracy index tell us? Seen from a historical perspective, the data shows that media integrity has improved globally. In 1976, the so-called ‘third wave of democracy’, media integrity scored 0.33 out of a total of 1. In 2015, this had risen several points to 0.47. The same goes for freedom of expression, which went from 0.42 to 0.63 in 40 years This is most likely due to democratic advances worldwide, with a growth in the number of democracies in which competitive elections determined government power, from only a quarter of the world’s countries in 1975 to two thirds in 2016.

However, there are significant regional disparities and worrying recent developments. Progress in the Middle East and Iran has been the slowest. The region lags behind all others on both media integrity and freedom of expression, and is at the same or lower level as the worldwide average in 1975 on both dimensions. Significant challenges to media freedom are also seen in Africa and Asia Pacific, which both score below the global average (0.45 and 0.42 respectively). However, despite the continuing challenges, Africa is the region that has progressed the most since 1975 on both dimensions. This can be explained by the expansion of democracy throughout the African continent in the last decades, which has enabled an expansion of a vibrant media landscape in a number of countries.

North America is the region that comparatively enjoys the highest degree of freedom of expression and media freedom in the world[1]. While a recent worsening media environment in the United States is often highlighted in the public debate, a gradual deterioration in its media integrity scores started already back in 2012 (from a peak of 0.72), due to, among other factors, a weakened financial profitability of long-established media outlets. This has led to a decline in resources for investigative journalism. In 2018, the US’ score in the World Press Freedom Index has worsened further in the last two years explained among other factors by an increase in media polarization following an increase in outlets pursuing partisan agendas, a restriction of journalist access to the government and a generally hostile rhetoric against journalists.

Europe’s media landscape also faces challenges in some countries. Sources such as the Press Freedom Index reflect the decline in the media environment in countries like Poland, Hungary and Turkey, going hand in hand with a democratic deterioration in those contexts. Mechanisms used to curb media freedom include closure of media outlets, imprisonment of journalists to more subtle means such as replacement of government-friendly public broadcasters, purchase of media outlets by pro-government-owned firms, fines on critical media outlets, selective awarding of advertising contracts and radio broadcasting frequencies, restriction of journalists to the parliament, and legalistic means such as the passing of defamation laws.

Looking again at International IDEA’s Media Integrity scores, after North America and Europe, only one region scores above the world average, namely Latin America and the Caribbean (0.50). Democratic success stories with vibrant media landscapes, including for example Uruguay and Costa Rica contribute to raise the regional score, but there are also worrying tendencies. The only non-democracy – Cuba - (classified as “authoritarian regime” by the Economist Intelligence Unit, not surprisingly scores the lowest (0.20) in the region. But Venezuela does not perform a lot better and well below the world average (at 0.32 versus 0.47). According to the Press Freedom Index, countries such as Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia have all seen their scores decline between 2016 and 2018 and countries such as Mexico have witnessed the publicized assassination of journalists in recent months.

Finally, while not captured in statistical indices, there is an increasing threat of disinformation and propaganda to a healthy media environment, further facilitated by the spread of social media. While technology has opened new channels for people to access and spread information, the strengths of social media are also its main weaknesses. Social media does not allow for nuancing of complex phenomena, which simplifies the public debate on democracy and can contribute to amplify societal and political polarization.

In the midst of these various threats to media and press integrity and to freedom of expression in different parts of the world, let this day be a reminder of the importance of enabling, nurturing and protecting a vibrant, healthy and democratic media environment everywhere, in the pursuit of democracy.

[1] The slight decline noted between 2012 and 2018 is not statistically significant.

About the authors

Annika Silva-Leander
Annika Silva-Leander
Head of North America and Permanent Observer of International IDEA to the United Nations
Helena Schwertheim
Associate Programme Officer
Joseph Noonan
Associate Programme Officer
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