Two reports, both released in Washington this week, document a decline in journalistic freedom and religious freedom for 2014 — the consequence of an increasingly unstable and authoritarian world.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry to tell you, the news is bleak,” announced Vanessa Tucker of Freedom House at the release of the NGO’s annual Freedom of the Press report Wednesday. According to the group’s metrics, freedom for journalists to operate freely dropped last year to its lowest point in a decade. Freedom House’s report shows that the collapse of press freedom occurred not only in autocracies, but in vibrantly democratic countries, “including Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Serbia, and South Africa.”
Tools used to oppress journalists today include restrictive laws on speech (including security laws or states of emergency); impassable areas that constitute virtual “black boxes” of information, such as territory controlled by the Islamic State terror group; and threats of violence by governments, individuals or groups. The report also discusses the use of propaganda to silence dissenting voices, as well as government coercion of public or major private news outlets.
Speaking at Freedom House’s launch event, Middle East reporter Thanassis Cambanis recounted another jarring example of attempted repression: clumsy wiretaps and instances of government surveillance, which consequently follows him throughout his work in the region. He also noted that the pervasive use of overt “media guidelines” regulating journalists’ behavior has even influenced Islamic State policy, with the group issuing a list of rules for reporters in its territory that was “uncannily” similar to Coalition press guidelines he had seen reporting on the Iraq war a decade ago.
Despite the high-profile murder of cartoonists at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, European and North American countries are largely free from the kind of restrictions measured by the report. In one of its most harrowing findings, Freedom House concluded that 86% of the world’s population lives in countries where journalists are either “not free” or only “partly free.”
Meanwhile, the government-appointed U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom unveiled its review of religious persecution worldwide on Thursday. USCIRF’s report focuses on 33 countries that it claims are the world’s most egregious violators of religious freedom, noting violence and oppression committed by governments as well as lawless groups and individuals.
In remarks to the press, the panel’s chair Katrina Lantos Swett said that “across the world, we see little evidence that religious freedom is on the rise.” With few exceptions, the countries that USCIRF tracks have continued to see crimes and harassment target members of all faiths, and no faith at all, for the beliefs that they hold. She mentioned a number of particular targets of religious oppression in 2014, including those affected by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria — “from Yezidis to Christians, Shias to dissenting Sunnis, no group has been free” of the group’s atrocities.
USCIRF operates within a delicate balance of government entities responsible for monitoring and responding to religious freedom conditions worldwide. The State Department is legally required to issue an annual list of “countries of particular concern” for religious freedom infractions based on USCIRF’s recommendations, a practice that has been spotty under President Barack Obama’s two terms.
The department also includes an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, who occupies a post that has gone vacant for more than half of Obama’s time in office. The current ambassador, Rabbi David Saperstein, was officially took up the capacity in February, after delays during which he reportedly fought for greater independence and power in the department.
USCIRF’s Swett also addressed those who say the president has ignored the ideological roots of terrorist atrocities against Christians and other religious groups, saying, “When violent, vicious, murderous crimes take place against people, if those crimes have a religious basis, that has to be identified.” Noting that Obama’s statement on the beheading of 28 Ethiopian Christians in Libya explicitly noted their faith, “if there was a misstep in the past, corrections have taken place.”
Amid the seemingly endless horrors perpetrated against individuals in 2014 on the basis of religion, conscience or belief, Swett hoped the report would be “a spur to the President, Congress and State Department to raise the profile of religious freedom concerns in policymaking.” As she put it, “the evidence is mounting that religious freedom correlates with and is a causal factor in a lot of positive democratic social outcomes.”