Threats to press freedom

“Press freedom is facing new threats in major democracies as well as in repressive states, where authorities are focusing their efforts on social media and other online platforms after reducing the independence of major print and broadcast outlets.” This is how the April 2018 Press Freedom report labelled “Attacks on the Record: The State of Global Press Freedom, 2017-2018” prepared by independent watchdog, Freedom House located in Washington and New York, USA.

The fact that even major democracies are experiencing attacks on the free press may come as no surprise to many. In the USA, long considered the world’s foremost democracy, the most stringent voice criticising the mainstream media is its own President, Donald Trump, who has often labelled established mainstream media houses as purveyors of “fake news,” and with Trump being particularly unapologetic and even insistent about it to boot.

But prior to Trump’s harsh labelling of the mainstream media, the term “fake news” had previously referred almost exclusively to satirical websites and other websites with deliberate disinformation as a major agenda, distinct from mere entertainment that satirical websites claim as their main intent. These forms of “fake news” were spread mainly through social media platforms such as Facebook, which previously did not censor content from this perspective. All this changed with the events leading up to the November 2016 election of Donald Trump as the new American President and the subsequent and on-going fallout blaming Russian interference in that USA election process partly by spreading “fake news” through social media, particularly Facebook. Added to that, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was summoned for a Congressional hearing after a leak of the profiles of 87 million users by Facebook to a political data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica. With the social media giant squarely in the spotlight, specific changes to address these major concerns were promised and executed by Facebook which means that heightened censoring and control of user data and what a user sees is now a part of Facebook’s modus operandi. Words like “censoring” and “control” do not make a good fit for social media platforms from the users’ perspective.

But in other regimes such as China, for instance, social media is much more highly restricted and monitored. Some highly popular websites are blocked in mainland China, while others are partially available. China is not alone in having a strict internet censorship policy, but it does have a much more extensive reach than most other countries with over 8,000 domain names blocked as of May 2018, and with the government actively monitoring the internet activity of individuals.

The Freedom House press freedom watchdog group has labelled Guyana as a “partially free” country with regards to press freedom. Another watchdog group, Reporters Without Borders, or Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), similarly has shown Guyana as ranking 55th out of 180 countries assessed on the World Press Freedom Index. In its 2016 report, RSF drew attention to “a deep and disturbing decline in respect for media freedom at both the global and regional levels” and more recently, its April 2018 report painted a gloomier picture, stating that the Index reflected “growing animosity towards journalists. Hostility towards the media, openly encouraged by political leaders, and the efforts of authoritarian regimes to export their vision of journalism pose a threat to democracies.”

The news media has been viewed as the “fourth estate” because of its power of indirect yet significant influence on society as a whole. This “fourth estate” was also seen as society’s watchdog, as through the dissemination of information influencing public opinion it can curb the tendency for excesses by those wielding power and influence over society – such as governmental, religious and business interests. But over time it was perhaps inevitable that governments and other bodies wielding power in society would employ their own news media in an effort to control the narrative and influence public opinion. This has led to the need to differentiate a segment of the mainstream news media as “independent,” meaning that such radio, newspapers, television, or internet entity is free of influence by government or corporate interests.

Both Freedom House and Reporters without Borders spoke to the increasing efforts by ostensibly democratic governments to suppress the independence of news media houses and the disturbing decline in respect accorded matters related to media freedom. And if anyone wanted an example of this, they need look no further than Guyana itself. In the past Stabroek News itself has been on the receiving end of a punishing advertisement blockade by the previous administration and this current administration has already sought to implement legislation such as the new Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill of 2017 which was adopted by Parliamentarians without consultation with broadcasters themselves. And the now approved Cybercrime Bill contained highly repressive powers which could be used to prevent journalists from performing their obligations to their craft and the general public for fear of imprisonment.

Amazingly though, when faced with an independent assessment of the state of press freedom in Guyana, successive administrations of the Government of Guyana have denounced the findings with self-righteous opprobrium, while those same bodies while functioning in parliamentary opposition have positioned themselves as advocates of press freedom. However, saying one thing in opposition and acting contrary to promises when in government is perhaps viewed by the politician as his most successful tactic.

As press freedom continues to decline worldwide, governments in Guyana may be emboldened to continue to pass repressive laws in the process defying the lessons of history.

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