The US slid three places to 48th in their global rankings, dropping below Botswana, Chile and Romania and entering the category of “problematic” regions for press freedom. Norway claimed the top spot for the third consecutive year, ahead of Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands, and North Korea climbed off the bottom of the table.
But the index painted a dire scene for the profession, illustrating an overall decline in journalistic independence and safety around the world in 2018. Just one in four countries were labeled as having a good or satisfactory situation for the media, while journalists face a difficult or very serious situation in 71 nations, the rankings showed.
“It’s a really worrying picture,” Rebecca Vincent, director of the UK bureau of Reporters Without Borders — also known by its French acronym, RSF — told CNN. “It’s never been a more dangerous time to be a journalist, and press freedom has never been under greater attack than it is now.”
And Vincent highlighted the global spread of suppression and violence against journalists, which has crept into corners of the world previously considered safer havens. “It’s not just the places anymore that are traditionally thought of as being hostile, it’s everywhere now — including democracies,” she said.
Just 15 countries, 11 of them European, were classed as maintaining a good situation for journalists. At the other end of the table, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan fell, and Turkmenistan slumped to the bottom.
Americas and European nations fall
Europe is “no longer a sanctuary for journalists,” RSF said, following the murders of reporters in Malta, Slovakia and Bulgaria.
The governments of Italy, Poland and Bulgaria were criticized for targeting journalists through threats or legislation, while the group raised concern over retribution against investigative reporters by organized crime figures.
The UK rose seven places to 33rd, one spot below France, while Germany rose two places to 13th — but their improvements were partly influenced by the dramatic falls of Central and Eastern European countries including Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, RSF said.
Responding to the release of the index, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy hunt said he would launch a “global campaign to shine a spotlight on the issue of media freedom,” alongside the Canadian government.
Hunt appointed human rights lawyer Amal Clooney to be a special envoy on media freedom, and will host a conference on the topic in London in July, he said on Thursday.
Hatred of the media was called “a leading characteristic of the angry ‘Gilets Jaunes’ (Yellow Vest) protests in France,” and Poland’s populist government was criticized for turning state-owned media “into its mouthpiece.”
North and South America saw the biggest regional decline, dragged down by the poor performances of the US, Brazil and Venezuela. Nicaragua dropped by 24 places after physical attacks on journalists covering protests against President Daniel Ortega’s government.
The governments of Italy, Poland and Bulgaria were also criticized for targeting journalists through threats or legislation.
Trump’s rhetoric condemned as threats rise
And RSF rounded on Donald Trump, whose anti-media rhetoric — including in the aftermath of the shooting — was blamed for partially fueling the rises in violence and hostility.
“Amid one of the American journalism community’s darkest moments, President Trump continued to spout his notorious anti-press rhetoric, disparaging and attacking the media at a national level,” the group said. “Simultaneously, journalists across the country reported terrifying harassment and death threats, online and in person.”
“Never before have US journalists been subjected to so many death threats or turned so often to private security firms for protection,” they added.
Trump’s election and presidency have helped create a “strongman model” that has reverberated around the world and fueled an increase in violence, Vincent said. “The heavy-headed approach towards the media, and the media-bashing rhetoric, it matters … these politicians bear some responsibility for this violent climate.”
“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 in a statement.
“So far there have not been serious political consequences for Saudi Arabia,” Vincent said. “We haven’t seen any action beyond the rhetorical level.”
But Vincent praised “courageous individuals” carrying out reporting in a dangerous climate, and noted that such cases have led to a greater discussion about the role of the media. “If there is a silver lining, there is a recognition now of the importance of press freedom and the importance of courageous investigative journalism,” she said.