The FINANCIAL -- This World Press Freedom Day, media freedom may be more crucial to free societies than ever amid rising concern about how "fake news" and propaganda are hurting democratic processes.
Overall, global perceptions of media freedom changed little in 2016 from one year earlier, though they remain less positive than they were in 2010. Across 131 countries surveyed for the Gallup World Poll, a median of 61% of residents said the media in their respective countries have a lot of freedom, while 28% disagreed, according to Gallup.
The state of media freedom, however, varies throughout the world -- and not everyone thinks their media are this free. Many of the 10 countries where residents were least likely to say their media have a lot of freedom are repressive states (such as Belarus and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) or conflict-ridden countries where media outlets often serve as mouthpieces for one faction or another (such as Yemen and South Sudan).
In Venezuela, the government has further clamped down on media dissent amid crumbling support for the current regime, helping explain the sharp drop in perceived media freedom from 50% in 2013 to 29% in 2016. Results from Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine reflect the ongoing lack of journalistic independence in much of the former Soviet sphere. (Notably, the media freedom question was too sensitive to include in several countries surveyed in 2016, including China and Iran.)
European countries dominate the high end of the range, with more than 90% of residents in Denmark, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Ireland and Sweden saying their media have a lot of freedom. The U.S. is further down the list, at 82%, which is similar to the 81% recorded in 2015. Similar to the global trend, however, U.S. perceptions of media freedom have drifted downward since 2010 (89%).
Thailand Sees Biggest Gain, Georgia Biggest Drop Since 2015
Worldwide, perceived media freedom rose most sharply in Thailand between 2015 (58%) and 2016 (76%). However, the longer-term trend reveals that the year-on-year rise represents a rebound from an unusually low reading in the 2015 survey -- the first measurement taken after the 2014 coup that returned the country to military rule. Between 2010 and 2014, the trend in Thailand ranged from 72% to 78%, in line with the 2016 results.
Trends in perceived media freedom are often relatively volatile in sub-Saharan African countries, partly because many have large rural populations where residents have access to fewer media outlets on which to base their evaluations. Of the 10 countries in which responses changed the most between 2015 and 2016 (either positively or negatively), five are in sub-Saharan Africa.
Notably, however, the biggest decline in perceived media freedom occurred in Georgia amid public indignation over the Georgian government's attempt to take over an opposition-oriented TV station.
Public Perceptions Mostly Align With Expert Ratings
Two international nongovernmental organizations, Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, released their own annual barometers of media freedom before World Press Freedom Day, with each finding that press freedom is at its lowest point in more than a decade. Gallup's 2016 country-level survey results correspond fairly closely with Freedom House's "Freedom of the Press" scores and Reporters Without Borders' "World Press Freedom Index" -- each of which is based on assessments from a range of experts, including media practitioners in each country. The relationships suggest that in most countries, residents have a relatively good sense of how free their country's media are.
Public perceptions in Gallup's data diverge most from expert evaluations in several countries in Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union, where residents tend to be more optimistic about media freedom than expert ratings suggest they should be. However, there are a few countries in which residents were more negative about media freedom than their Freedom House or Reporters Without Borders ratings would predict. These include Lithuania and Mauritania, where views of media freedom have grown significantly more negative since 2015. Neither country does particularly poorly in the Freedom House or Reporters Without Borders ratings; in fact, Mauritania receives the Arab world's highest ratings in each index.
In some cases, such discrepancies may reflect public reaction to specific setbacks in countries where the media environment is gradually shifting toward greater freedom. The percentage of Mauritanians who said the country's media have a lot of freedom dropped by 12 percentage points between 2015 and 2016. One possible factor in that decline is the National Assembly's enactment of a cybercrime law establishing heavy penalties for publishing politically sensitive online content, passed three months before the 2016 survey took place.
Gallup's 2016 results for perceived media freedom are -- as usual -- a mixed bag, with perceived progress in some countries offset by setbacks in others. The current data highlight, in particular, the ongoing struggle to establish higher standards for freedom of information in post-Soviet states. However, as current debate about "fake news" in the U.S. and Europe make clear, even well-established democracies are not immune to the use of popular media sources for propaganda. That debate also suggests that advocates of media freedom face a new challenge: keeping repressive states from co-opting concerns about fake news in democratic societies to justify maintaining control over their own media environments.