Across Europe and much of the world, journalists are facing increased hostility, but progress in Africa is a sign for hope.
That’s according to the latest World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.
For the first time in three years, North Korea evaded the wooden spoon: The country is no longer ranked last in Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index published Thursday. Instead, it is Turkmenistan that has captured the bottom spot in 2019.
Once again, Norway tops the global ranking, followed by Finland and Sweden.
The UK has risen in the world press freedom rankings, but is still one of the “worst-performing countries in Western Europe”, researchers say.
Press freedom group Reporters without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres – RSF) has published its World Press Freedom Index for 2019, placing the UK at 33 out of 180 countries – a rise of seven places on last year.
The UK is now one spot below France and two spots above Slovakia – the country where investigative reporter Jan Kuciak was killed last year.
The Netherlands dropped out of the top three, and in the opinion of Sylvie Ahrens-Urbanek from the German branch of Reporters Without Borders, this demotion is proof that there are press shortcomings even among countries often touted as exemplary democracies.
Read more: Press freedom is deteriorating in multiple countries and regions including in Europe, according to the latest Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Thursday.
“There have been instances of journalists needing police protection for reporting on organised crime,” said Ahrens-Urbanek, who stressed the importance of reversing this negative trend in countries that have typically had strong press freedom.
‘Climate of fear’
“Essentially, the climate that journalists work in has simply deteriorated worldwide,” said Ahrens-Urbanek, explaining that the profession is now experiencing a “climate of fear.”
What Ahrens-Urbanek finds particularly striking is the increasing amount of hateful rhetoric directed towards journalists in Europe and the United States, although the rise is a phenomenon being seen worldwide.
Biggest deterioration in supposedly better regions
Of all the world’s regions, it is the Americas (North and South) that has suffered the greatest deterioration (3.6 percent) in its regional score measuring the level of press freedom constraints and violations. This was not just due to the poor performance of the United States, Brazil and Venezuela. Nicaragua (114th) fell 24 places, one of the biggest in 2019. Nicaraguan journalists covering protests against President Ortega’s government are treated as protesters and are often physically attacked. Many had to flee abroad to avoid being jailed on terrorism charges. The Western Hemisphere also has one of the world’s deadliest countries for the media: Mexico, where at least ten journalists were murdered in 2018. Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s installation as president has reduced some of the tension between the authorities and media, but the continuing violence and impunity for murders of journalists led RSF to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court in March.
The European Union and Balkans registered the second biggest deterioration (1.7 percent) in its regional score measuring the level of constraints and violations. It is still the region where press freedom is respected most and which is, in principle, the safest, but journalists are nonetheless exposed to serious threats: to murder in Malta, Slovakia and Bulgaria (111th); to verbal and physical attacks in Serbia and Montenegro (down 1 at 104th); and to an unprecedented level of violence during the Yellow Vest protests in France (down 1 at 32nd). Many TV crews did not dare cover the Yellow Vest protests without being accompanied by bodyguards, and others concealed their channel’s logo. Journalists are also being openly stigmatized. In Hungary (down 14 at 87th), officials in Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party Fidesz continue to refuse to speak to journalists who are not from media that are friendly to Fidesz. In Poland, the state-owned media have been turned into propaganda tools and are increasingly used to harass journalists.
Although the deterioration in its regional score was smaller, the Middle East and North Africa region continues to be the most difficult and dangerous for journalists. Despite a slight fall in the number of journalists killed in 2018, Syria (174th) continues to be extremely dangerous for media personnel, as does Yemen (down 1 at 168th). Aside from wars and major crises, as in Libya (162nd), another major threat hangs over the region’s journalists – that of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. Iran (down 6 at 170th) is one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists. Dozens of journalists are also detained in Saudi Arabia, Egypt (down 2 at 163rd) and Bahrain (down 1 at 167th), many of them without trial. And when they are tried, the proceedings drag on interminably, as in Morocco (135th). The one exception to this gloomy picture is Tunisia (up 15 at 97th), which has seen a big fall in the number of violations.
Africa registered the smallest deterioration in its regional score in the 2019 Index, but also some of the biggest changes in individual country rankings. After a change of government, Ethiopia (110th) freed all of its detained journalists and secured a spectacular 40-place jump in the Index. And it was thanks to a change of government that Gambia (up 30 at 92nd) also achieved one of the biggest rises in this year’s Index. But new governments have not always been good for journalists. Tanzania (down 25 at 118th) has seen unprecedented attacks on the media since John “Bulldozer” Magufuli’s installation as president in 2015. Mauritania (down 22 at 94th) also fell sharply, in large part because the blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed Mkhaitir is being held incommunicado though he should have been freed more than a year and a half ago, when his death sentence for apostasy was commuted to a jail term. In this continent of contrasts, bad situations have continued unchanged in some countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo (154th) was again the country where RSF registered the most violations in 2018, while Somalia (164th) continued to be Africa’s deadliest country for journalists.
The Eastern Europe and Central Asia region continues to rank second from last in the Index, the position it has held for years, despite an unusual variety of changes at the national level and a slight improvement in its regional score. Some of the indicators used to calculate the score improved, while others deteriorated. Of the latter, it was the legal framework indicator that worsened most. More than half of the region’s countries are still ranked near or below 150th in the Index. The regional heavyweights, Russia and Turkey, continue to persecute independent media outlets. The world’s biggest jailer of professional journalists, Turkey, is also the world’s only country where a journalist has been prosecuted for their Paradise Papers reporting. In this largely ossified region, rises are rare and deserve mention. Uzbekistan (up 5 at 160th) has ceased to be coloured black (the mark of a “very bad” situation) after freeing all the journalists who were jailed under the late dictator, Islam Karimov. In Armenia (up 19 at 61st), the “velvet revolution” has loosened the government’s grip on TV channels. The size of its rise was facilitated by the fact that this is a very volatile part of the Index.
With totalitarian propaganda, censorship, intimidation, physical violence and cyber-harassment, the Asia-Pacific region continues to exhibit all of the problems that can beset journalism and, with a virtually unchanged regional score, continues to rank third from last. The number of murdered journalists was extremely high in Afghanistan (121st), India and Pakistan (down 3 at 142nd). Disinformation is also becoming a big problem in the region. As a result of the manipulation of social networks in Myanmar, anti-Rohingya hate messages have become commonplace and the seven-year jail sentences imposed on two Reuters journalists for trying to investigate the Rohingya genocide was seen as nothing out of the ordinary. Under China’s growing influence, censorship is spreading to Singapore (151st) and Cambodia (down 1 at 143rd). In this difficult environment, the 22-place rises registered by both Malaysia (123rd) and Maldives (98th) highlight the degree to which political change can radically transform the climate for journalists, and how a country’s political ecosystem can directly affect press freedom.