Threats to media freedom and self-expression undermine democratic stability

Essay By
Learn more about William McKenzie.
William McKenzie
Senior Editorial Advisor
George W. Bush Institute

William McKenzie, Bush Institute Senior Editorial Advisor, weighs in on Freedom House’s latest Freedom in the World report and the global decline of freedom of the press and the right to self-expression.

The most troubling finding in Freedom House’s latest Freedom in the World report is that freedom of the press and the right to self-expression remain in persistent decline globally. 

 “Of all the indicators tracked by Freedom in the World, media freedom and freedom of personal expression have declined the most precipitously over the past 17 years,” the 82-year-old organization found. “The number of countries and territories that have a score of 0 out of 4 on the media freedom indicator has ballooned from 14 to 33 during the 17 years of global democratic decline.” 

As a result, citizens in nations like Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Russia — three of the most egregious offenders — lack sufficient access to independent reports about the world, their nations, and their communities. The difficulty in getting reliable information makes it hard to know the truth about their leaders, learn about their economies, and follow local developments. What’s more, citizens find it nearly impossible to hold their governments accountable. 

The second major fallout is that tyrants and their cronies fill information voids with falsehoods. Autocrats notoriously spread disinformation when citizens lack independently verified news reports. 

The obvious and worrisome example is the degree to which Vladimir Putin’s government provides Russians with lies and distortions about his invasion of Ukraine. The government’s shutdown of independent Russian news organizations complicates Russians’ ability to access anything but the government’s narrative about the war. 

Parts of Latin America are their own hotspots for assaults on media freedom. In Guatemala, for example, Freedom House details how: “The year saw a worsening climate of intimidation and attacks against civil society and members of the media, forcing several journalists and prominent human rights defenders to leave the country. Others were jailed on spurious charges, including prominent independent journalist José Rubén Zamora, who was arrested in July for alleged financial crimes; he remained in detention at year’s end.” 

Mexican journalists experienced a particularly awful 2022. As the Committee to Protect Journalists reports, 13 Mexican journalists were killed last year. Drug cartels pose a physical threat to Mexican journalists who seek to report on their communities. They also can cause journalists to self-censor and not report drug violence. 

China, a desert of media freedom in its own right, enables regimes in places like Venezuela and Cuba to track and stifle online dissent. Chinese technology and expertise, the Voice of America reports, empowers governments in those two countries to control access to digital communications. 

Situations like these cry out for the United States to sufficiently fund and support the independent reporting of organizations like Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Asia. They provide information-hungry citizens news reports that adhere to journalistic standards, even at the risk of some of their journalists. Alexander Lukashenka’s Belarusian regime recently sentenced Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Ihar Losik to 21 years in prison.   

These situations also exemplify why President Biden, U.S. diplomats, and members of Congress should consistently decry assaults on freedom of the press in international gatherings and diplomatic meetings. A free flow of information has a major role in stabilizing nations. 

The third major fallout is the decline in freedom of expression, reports Freedom House: “From 2005 to 2022, the number of countries and territories that scored a 0 out of 4 on this indicator [freedom of expression] rose from six to 15, signaling a nearly complete lack of freedom to voice antigovernment opinions even in private.” Afghanistan, Belarus, and Nicaragua are among the notorious offenders. 

“Digital authoritarianism” has emerged as a threat to freedom of expression. Chris Walsh, the Bush Institute’s Director of Freedom and Democracy, and Rodrigo Diamanti, an exiled Venezuelan dissident who heads A World Without Censorship, noted in a Democracy Talks essay how strongman governments use digital means to control freedom of speech. That includes shutting down the internet and surveilling social media content.  

Yes, Freedom House found encouraging signs in its 50th version of Freedom in the World. There notably was a decline in the gap between the number of nations showing improvements in political rights and civil liberties (34) and those registering declines (35). The difference represented the smallest gap since a global retreat in democratic freedoms began 17 years ago. For that, we can be grateful.  

And the National Endowment for Democracy reports that Ukrainian civil society organizations are helping their nation win the information part of the struggle against Russia. That is good and important news, too. 

Still, Freedom House’s report should cause Western leaders, civil society organizations, and those of us who benefit from independent journalism and freedom of speech to stand up for vibrant media organizations and self-expression. Those democratic pillars facilitate self-determination and pose a counter-weight to authoritarians around the world. 

Freedom House’s report should cause Western leaders, civil society organizations, and those of us who benefit from independent journalism and freedom of speech to stand up for vibrant media organizations and self-expression.