by Rachel E. Gross
Recently, one of our readers noticed something strange at Washington, DC’s Newseum. Standing in front of the World Press Freedom Map—the color-coded map that illustrates which countries enjoy true freedom of the press—she was appalled to see that Israel was listed as just “Partly Free.” Our reader asked: How could the Middle East’s only true democracy not have a free press? So we decided to do some sleuthing. The first thing we learned was that, in most places around the world, being the press is no walk in the park. According to this year’s just-released Freedom of the Press Survey—the annual report by independent watchdog Freedom House that informs the Newseum’s map—just 14 percent of us live in a country where reporters don’t face harassment, censorship, detainment, imprisonment or worse.
The second thing we learned was that the Newseum’s map was right. In 2012, the Middle East’s sole bastion of free press received the controversial rating of “Partly Free.” That rating was due to a combination of press censorship, restrictions on journalists and one high-profile case where Haaretz journalist Uri Blau was indicted for possession of state secrets using an espionage law. However, this year’s survey bumped Israel back to “Free”—an upgrade reflected in an updated map this month. Our reader wasn’t the only one to question Israel’s flip-flopping: Karin Karlekar, director of the Freedom of the Press survey, has been paying special attention to the “blueberry in the cherry pie” ever since it started teetering on the cusp of freedom several years ago. We gave Karlekar a call to tell us about her rating system and what makes Israel’s press so unique. (Read Israel’s full country report here.)
What does Freedom House measure with its yearly ratings?
We measure the level of media freedom in each country in the world, and then look at trends. Each country is given a numerical score, from 0 to 100, where 0 is the best and 100 is the worst. We focus on two things: the ability of a journalist in each country to do their job without fear of repercussions, and the ability of people in each country to receive diverse and independent news.
Why did Freedom House decide to focus on press freedom specifically?
Press freedom is a foundational right: it enables other rights to be realized. We’ve seen that media freedom often tracks alongside general democracy. But in some cases, it can also be a precursor of broader decline. So you’ll see that in some countries, their press freedom score will start to get worse, and that will be followed by declines of democratic rights more generally.
What was the most surprising finding in the 2014 report?
The overall level of press freedom is declining around the world; it’s the lowest level that it has been in a decade. This might be counter-intuitive, because if you look at the impact of the internet and digital and social media, you do find that around the world there’s much more information flowing around. But as the amount of information increases, governments have found new ways to crack down and expand their methods of control. This year we saw the harassment of foreign journalists and news outlets in a number of countries like Egypt, Russia and China. We also saw crackdowns on journalists trying to cover protests movements or demonstrations, which was very worrying.
Where did you see the greatest decline?
Every region saw a decline, but the Middle East was the worst (Europe was the second-worst). There were a few bright spots: Israel was upgraded back to free; there were improvements in Yemen, and then also West Bank and Gaza Strip. But overall, the trend was negative. We saw major backsliding in Libya, in Egypt, and then countries like Jordan and UAE and Iraq. Of course, Libya and Egypt had improved several years ago with the Arab Spring. Libya was one of the most dramatic openings in the world and really a significant shift in the positive direction. So backsliding did occur, but the media environment is still much better than it was several years ago under Qadafi.
Do you separate out Israel and the territories?
This rating is based only on what’s going on in Israel, which has been a basic point of misunderstanding. We separate out conditions from Israel proper and the West Bank and Gaza Strip. One of the reasons the West Bank got such a bad score was because of Israeli action and restrictions that are placed on journalists in the territories, both by Hamas, by Fatah and by the IDF. So Israeli action in the territories we rate separately, and they are not rated very well at all.
What makes Israel’s press so unique?
The Israeli media is really a complete outlier in the Middle East. It’s a much more free and open media environment. There are a lot of opinions being expressed from all sides of the political spectrum. Part of this is because there are many slices of Israel. Just on a linguistic level, you have news outlets catering to the Hebrew market, the Arab market, the Russian market, the English market. Because of the diversity of Israeli society, media have been established that cater to those markets.
Then why does Israel often find itself so close to the “Not Free” category?
Israel has always had a censorship apparatus, but journalists have traditionally found ways to get around it. Now what we’re seeing is a heightened use of gag orders instead of censorship. There’s an increasing number of legal cases where the media is not allowed to report on them at all. This past year the Prisoner X case got the most attention, but there are a lot of others, mostly to do with national security issues, actions of the IDF. Recently there was even reporting coming out that it was affecting outlets in the U.S. such as The New York Times, which was unable to cover some cases.
This year, Israel gained 1 point in the ratings, bumping it back up to “Free.” Why?
Last year we moved Israel into the “Partly Free” category for several reasons. One was the impact of Israel Hayom (the free daily started by Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson in 2007)—its economic impact on the advertising market and the economic sustainability of other newspapers. Between Israel Hayom and some well-publicized instances of political interference with the Israel Broadcasting Authority, there were issues of control over editorial content by owners at the public broadcaster. Last year there was also this case against Uri Blau, the first journalist to be indicted for possession of state secrets under Israel’s espionage law. That was really an unusual case; that law hadn’t been used before in that way. This year there was no similar case. Another improvement was that over the past few years the level of violence against journalists has lessened slightly.