Times are unquestionably difficult for news media throughout the world. Once upon a time, reporters had privileged access and a measure of respect, even when critical. Media workers are targeted for assault - or worse - by anybody with a grievance, whether police, politicians, gangsters or fanatics. Even media outlet proprietors are angry with reporters.
Pronouncements by French daily Le Monde co-owner Pierre Bergé left journalists and press freedom advocates aghast confirming, for many, their worst fears about media proprietors. Speaking on French national radio channel RTL (February 11), M. Bergé questioned the newspaper's reporting details of rich and famous people skirting tax responsibilities with the assistance of the Geneva, Switzerland office of big bank HSBC. "Is it the role of a newspaper to throw the names of people out there?"
The "Swissleaks" story began rolling out across the world with a report on US network CBS news program 60 Minutes (February 8) followed by TV reports on BBC Panorama, German public TV channels, CBC and Radio Canada, Swedish public TV's Ekot, YLE in Finland, US international broadcaster VOA, ABC in Australia and more. Newspaper coverage hit the following morning in Le Monde, Guardian and Times (UK), New York Times, Irish Times, Aftenposten (Norway), Asahi Shimbun (Japan), Süddeutsche Zeitung and Tages-Anzeiger (Germany), Le Temps (Switzerland), Vedemosti (Russia), Straits Times (Singapore) and others. Pouring over the leaked HSBC documents were more than 150 journalists in 47 countries, part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). It it seems to have been the largest ever coordinated exposure of a single news story.
"It wasn't for this that I allowed them gain their independence," moaned M. Bergé, part of the trio of rich French guys who bailed Le Monde out of dire financial difficulties in 2010. Another of the Le Monde owners, Lazard France CEO Matthieu Pigasse, spoke earlier that morning on public radio channel France Inter calling on journalists not to "fall into a form of fiscal McCarthyism," a term referring to a discredited US politician who claimed in the 1950's to have a list of "communists" in the US government. The third Le Monde financial partner, billionaire founder of French ISP Free Xavier Niel, stayed out of the fray.
Le Monde journalists obtained the leaked HSBC documents then shared with the ICIJ which preceded with further investigation. On their investment in Le Monde, the trio agreed to a strict no-intervention contract stipulated by editorial workers. With this in mind, the Le Monde editorial board was unperturbed. "Eventually you are accustomed to the vagaries of Pierre Bergé," said chairman Alain Beuve-Méry. "I will go no further into the controversy."
Scant good news for news media was offered by Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF) 2015 Press Freedom Index, released last week. The "European model" for press freedom, one of the RSF report's main themes, is in general decline "facilitated by the concentration of media ownership in ever fewer hands and a lack of transparency about ownership." Again topping the RSF Press Freedom Index are Scandinavian and Northern European countries. Finland remains at the top, followed by Norway and Denmark, then the Netherlands at number four followed by Sweden.
France ranked 38th out of 180 countries, up one place year on year and positioned just above South Africa. The violent and deadly terrorist-related at the Paris offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that received worldwide news attention in January "occurred after the period covered by the 2015 Index." In 2005 RSF ranked France 30th of 161 countries.
Luxembourg (19th), Liechtenstein (27th) and Andorra (32nd) fell out of the top ten. "These are fairly comparable situations with a proximity between political, economic and media which generates extremely common conflict of interest and who constantly take in importance," said the RSF report. Into the top ten are Austria (7th), Canada (8th), Jamaica (9th) and Estonia (10th).
Italy's ranking in the RSF 2015 Index fell to 73th - behind Moldova, ahead of Nicaragua - from 49th one year on due to "a big surge in attacks on (journalist's) property, especially cars." Messages to Italian journalists come from organized crime bosses, such as "bullets sent through the post." In December one Italian journalist investigating mobsters had his car torched and pet dogs killed. RSF noted more than 400 threats to journalists last year. News reporters in Italy are also subjected to "unjustified" defamation lawsuits - "a form of censorship" - filed mostly by politicians.
Media investigations based on leaked documents contributed to the precipitous fall in Iceland's ranking the the RSF Press Freedom Index. Misidentification of a junior Interior Ministry official in leaked memo reported by a newspaper, quickly corrected, led to a defamation lawsuit seeking "maximum damages," noted news portal Reykjavik Grapevine (February 12). The leaked memo led to the resignation of Interior Minister Hanna Birna Kristjänsdöttir and the lawsuit was settled out of court. The country's politicians have taken taken control of public broadcaster RUK through severe budget cuts. Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson refuses to give RUK interviews "unless it sends him a copy of video before it is broadcast." Iceland's ranking the the RSF 2015 Index fell to 21st after topping the list in 2010 and every year between 2002 and 2008.
Bulgaria is the lowest ranked EU Member State country, falling to 106th, between Nepal and Republic of the Congo. Bulgaria's press freedom ranking has dropped every year since European Union accession in 2007 when ranked 51st. The most recent drop was attributed to falling trust in all media after lurid reports of bank failures. Former Yugoslav States Montenegro and Macedonia ranked even lower, 114th and 117th, respectively.
The worst of the worst, the RSF report noted, create a climate of fear for journalists and media workers. Censorship, both official and as applied by "radicals," afflicts more than half the the world‚Äôs countries, often in the name of religions. News media coverage of public demonstrations is restricted to officially accredited journalists - presumably those sympathetic to those in power. The usual bad actors - Turkey, Russia, Venezuela, China - target and arrest media workers covering unflattering events. Taking or circulating visual images that ‚Äúdamage the honor, image or safety of security forces‚Äù has been punishable by huge fines Spain since December.
Targeting media workers is an uncomfortable sign of the times. "In olden times warring parties were dependent on the mass media to get their message out," observed Swedish RSF affiliate chairman Jonathan Lundqvist, quoted by dagensmedia.se (February 12). "Today it s easier to avoid journalists and instead lay out material on YouTube and Twitter. This means that the respect they had for journalists, because they were dependent on them, has been eroded."
At the bottom of the RSF 2015 Press Freedom Index, also unchanged, were Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea and, finally, Eritrea. Swedish journalist and playwright Dawit Isaak has been jailed without trial in Eritrea for 13 years.