Lots of people like to say that the spread of communications technologies and social media across the globe promotes press freedom and makes governments more accountable in societies ruled by repressive regimes. But a recent Freedom House report reveals that it’s not that simple. As this Radio Free Europe summary of the report shows, press freedom throughout the world is actually declining, despite the wonders of these new technologies:
[J]ust one in six people around the world enjoys a free press—the lowest percentage in more than a decade. . . .[T]he percentage of the world’s people living in a free-press environment fell slightly, to 14.5—the lowest level since 1996, when the group began factoring population data into its findings.
This shouldn’t have been a surprise. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the like may allow citizens to see and hear things they never would have otherwise. But this freedom also inspires repressive regimes to redouble their efforts to restrict access to inspirational or “dangerous” information. As the Freedom House report shows, even democratic countries like Chile and Hungary are moving to restrict free press and access to the wild internet.There’s no doubt that the spread of social media and freedom of speech helps citizens in countries from Algeria to Zimbabwe access new information and ideas, and no doubt that this can do much to undermine authoritarian regimes. But don’t expect those regimes not to fight back—often enough, using the very same ostensibly liberating technologies trumpeted by the cyber-utopians.Back in the days when radio was young, there were techno-enthusiasts who raved about its ability to end dictatorship and tyranny. But then people like Hitler figured out how to use radio as a propaganda tool while controlling what went on air and jamming foreign broadcasts. Technology by itself does not make people more free; it is how we use tech that matters — and how hard we fight to protect our freedom.Eighty-five percent of the world’s population lives under the thumb of governments willing to use force to keep their people from knowing what is actually going on. The lucky 15 need to understand just how rare this freedom is that we so often take for granted, and remember that liberties not defended will eventually be lost.The defense of liberty matters, inside the United States as well as abroad.