2019 World Press Freedom Index – A cycle of fear
Eritrea (up 1 at 178th) is third from last
The 2019 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) shows how hatred of journalists has degenerated into violence, contributing to an increase in fear. The number of countries regarded as safe, where journalists can work in complete security, continues to decline, while authoritarian regimes continue to tighten their grip on the media.
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The RSF Index, which evaluates the state of journalism in 180 countries and territories every year, shows that an intense climate of fear has been triggered — one that is prejudicial to a safe reporting environment. The hostility towards journalists expressed by political leaders in many countries has incited increasingly serious and frequent acts of violence that have fuelled an unprecedented level of fear and danger for journalists.
“If the political debate slides surreptitiously or openly towards a civil war-style atmosphere, in which journalists are treated as scapegoats, then democracy is in great danger,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Halting this cycle of fear and intimidation is a matter of the utmost urgency for all people of good will who value the freedoms acquired in the course of history.”
Norway is ranked first in the 2019 Index for the third year running while Finland (up two places) has taken second place from the Netherlands (down one at 4th), where two reporters who cover organized crime have had to live under permanent police protection. An increase in cyber-harassment caused Sweden (third) to lose one place. In Africa, the rankings of Ethiopia (up 40 at 110th) and Gambia (up 30 at 92nd) have significantly improved from last year’s Index.
Many authoritarian regimes have fallen in the Index. They include Venezuela (down five at 148th), where journalists have been the victims of arrests and violence by security forces, and Russia (down one at 149th), where the Kremlin has used arrests, arbitrary searches and draconian laws to step up the pressure on independent media and the Internet. At the bottom of the Index, both Vietnam (176th) and China (177th) have fallen one place, Eritrea (up 1 at 178th) is third from last, despite making peace with its neighbour Ethiopia, and Turkmenistan (down two at 180th) is now last, replacing North Korea (up one at 179th).
Only 24 percent of the 180 countries and territories are classified as “good” (coloured white on the Press Freedom Map) or “fairly good” (yellow), as opposed to 26 percent last year. As a result of an increasingly hostile climate that goes beyond Donald Trump’s comments, the United States (48th) has fallen three places in this year’s Index and the media climate is now classified as “problematic” (orange). Never before have US journalists been subjected to so many death threats or turned so often to private security firms for protection. Hatred of the media is now such that a man walked into the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, in June 2018 and opened fire, killing four journalists and one other member of the newspaper’s staff. The gunman had repeatedly expressed his hatred for the paper on social networks before ultimately acting on his words.
Threats, insults and attacks are now part of the “occupational hazards” for journalists in many countries. In India (down two at 140th), where critics of Hindu nationalism are branded as “anti-Indian” in online harassment campaigns, six journalists were murdered in 2018. Since the election campaign in Brazil (down three at 105th), the media have been targeted by Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters on both physically and online.
Courageous investigative reporters
In this climate of widespread hostility, courage is needed to continue investigating corruption, tax evasion or organized crime. In Italy (up 3 at 43rd), interior minister and League party leader Matteo Salvini suggested that journalist Roberto Saviano’s police protection could be withdrawn after he criticized Salvini, while journalists and media are subjected to growing judicial harassment almost everywhere in the world, including Algeria (down 5 at 141st) and Croatia (up 5 at 64th).
Abusive judicial proceedings may be designed to gag investigative reporters by draining their financial resources, as in France or in Malta (down 12 at 77th). They could also result in imprisonment, as in Poland (down 1 at 59th), where Gazeta Wyborcza’s journalists are facing possible jail terms for linking the head of the ruling party to a questionable construction project, and in Bulgaria (11th), where two journalists were arrested after spending several months investigating the misuse of EU funds. In addition to lawsuits and prosecutions, investigative reporters are liable to be the targets of every other kind of harassment whenever they lift the veil on corrupt practices. A reporter’s house was set on fire in Serbia (down 14 at 90th), while journalists were murdered in Malta, Slovakia (down 8 at 35th), Mexico (down 3 at 144th) and Ghana (down 4 at 27th).
The level of violence used to persecute journalists who aggravate authorities no longer seems to know any limits. Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s gruesome murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October sent a chilling message to journalists well beyond the borders of Saudi Arabia (down 3 at 172nd). Out of fear for their survival, many of the region’s journalists censor themselves or have stopped writing altogether.