The FINANCIAL -- Although Internet access and mobile data services are available to more of the global population than ever before, residents of many countries are becoming less -- not more -- likely to say their media have a lot of freedom. Across 131 countries in 2015, a median 61% of residents said the media in their country have a lot of freedom -- a figure that has been edging downward since 2012.
These worsening public perceptions of media freedom coincide with declining worldwide ratings from Freedom House, the watchdog organization that released its 2016 Freedom of the Press report Tuesday on World Press Freedom Day. The report states that 2015 was the worst year for global press freedom in more than a decade, citing the influence of extreme political polarization in media outlets in many countries and the effects of violence and intimidation against journalists from governments and extremist groups.
Gallup's 2015 country-level survey results correspond fairly closely with the expert assessments that Freedom House compiled, suggesting that in many cases, residents are well-attuned to the problems in their country's media environment and make decisions about which news sources to rely on accordingly.
"We expect some correspondence [between the Gallup and Freedom House results], but we have not been surprised that there is not a perfect match," said Lee Becker, a media expert at the University of Georgia. "The elite evaluators are assessing aspects of performance, market forces and regulation that the public might not see. It also is possible that the public understands some aspects of their media system and how to read and evaluate it that the elite evaluators miss."
Perceptions of Media Freedom Weakest in Syria, Gabon
Many of the countries in which perceptions of media freedom are weakest are those where government control over mainstream media remains prevalent. Tied with Gabon for the country in which residents are least likely to say their media are free is Syria, where society has been torn apart by warring factions over the past five years. Fewer than one in four in either of these countries perceive their media as having a lot of freedom. (It should be noted that in several countries, such as China and Iran, the question was too sensitive to include in the survey.)
In countries with relatively transparent democratic institutions, including the U.S., Canada, Australia and most Western European nations, residents are far more likely to say their media have a lot of freedom. Scandinavia leads the world on this measure: the perception is nearly universal in Finland (97%), Denmark (95%), Sweden (95%) and Norway (94%). All four countries are also among the six most highly rated by Freedom House. Americans are somewhat less united in this perception; 81% say the country's media have a lot of freedom.
Perceived Media Freedom Falls Most Sharply in Zambia, Sierra Leone
Comparing Gallup's 2015 results with those from 2014 shows perceived media freedom fell by more than 10 percentage points in nine countries. Seven of the nine are in sub-Saharan Africa. In some cases, an event or crisis highlighted the vulnerability of media sources to outside influence; for example, during Zambia's January 2015 presidential election, the ruling Patriotic Front was criticized for harassment and threats against independent journalists and news outlets. In Sierra Leone, the Ebola crisis of 2014-2015 led the government to declare a state of emergency and grant the president additional powers, which he later used to target journalists critical of the government.
In Ukraine, the proportion of residents saying the country's media have a lot of freedom dropped from about half in 2014 (49%) to one-third (33%) in 2015. According to Tudor Vlad, a media expert at the University of Georgia and former journalist with extensive experience in Eastern Europe, "the Ukrainian population's hopes that the [Poroshenko] regime would bring more transparency and less corruption have not been confirmed by reality, so there is a lot of disappointment. The same oligarchs control major media."
Notably, among the six countries in which perceived media freedom increased by more than 10 percentage points, three are in sub-Saharan Africa, with Nigeria topping the list. The 22-percentage-point gain in that country could be attributed to the optimism surrounding the peaceful election in March 2015 of opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari, who ran on an anti-corruption platform.
The erosion of media freedom in many countries over the past few years demonstrates that the spread of Internet access, which has risen most sharply in the former Soviet Union over the past decade, and mobile data services, which are sweeping across sub-Saharan Africa, hardly guarantee increased access to reliable news and information. Rather, new media platforms are, in many cases, proving as susceptible to adverse political conditions and the threat of violence as the old ones. Though the method of obtaining news and information is changing for much of the world's population, it remains just as important as ever to monitor global trends in overall media freedom.