We are used to hearing of extreme crackdowns on the media and journalists across the world; from the ongoing killings targeting Mexican reporters to jail terms and executions for citizen journalists posting on Facebook, as seen recently in Thailand and Saudi Arabia. But a recent report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) suggests that press freedom is a wider issue than we might otherwise assume – including nations which pride themselves on free speech.

The Press Freedom Index measures seven variables – pluralism, media independence, environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency, infrastructure and abuses – to arrive at a score for 180 countries. Global rankings are now at their worst since RSF began compiling their annual table, with conditions worsening in two-thirds of the countries covered.

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Press freedom map 2017. From free (blue) to unfree (maroon). Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

What do the results show?

Unsurprisingly, North Korea, Eritrea and Turkmenistan remained bottom of the table, with Nordic countries again topping the rankings. However, while press freedom has declined in every region, it is the democratic West which has seen the largest fall since the current methodology was adopted in 2013. Of the 28 EU countries only three – Latvia, Spain and Sweden – have improved, while Poland and the UK saw dramatic decreases of 102% and 32% respectively. This puts the UK at 40th globally, while the US languishes at 43rd place after a 31% drop since 2013.

Are the rankings meaningful?

Critics of RSF – of which there are many – will see this as a slight rebalancing of a still-biased organisation which seeks to influence opinion, rather than genuinely investigate. There are certainly questions to be asked regarding RSF’s backing and motives. For example, it confirmed in 2005 that it had signed a contract with Otto Reich, the US State Department’s Special Envoy to the Western Hemisphere, to “inform Europeans of repression against journalists in Cuba” which drew on funding from the State Department.

Reich himself previously headed President Reagan’s ‘Office of Public Diplomacy’, covertly disseminating information to influence global opinion on US invasions of left-leaning Latin American states. Similar issues have been raised about the NGO’s impartiality on Venezuela, Haiti and other nations deemed ‘third world dictatorships’; its funding (including French government and EU grants) and its failure to accurately report on Western-led incidences of media abuse, such as alleged US targeting of foreign journalists in Iraq.

However, the fact remains that it is Western democracies that have experienced the largest decline in press freedom under RSF’s methodology since 2013. In some cases the causes for this are relatively simple. For example, Poland was ranked 22nd in 2013 and continued improving up until 2015, when Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law & Justice party won parliamentary elections. The party immediately gave the government direct control over national broadcasting, attacking independent agencies financially, before seeking to restrict media access – a move only prevented by mass protests. But why have the US and UK fared so poorly over the last five years?

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Press freedom from 2013-17. Source RSF; Graph Credit: Sam Peters

The election of Donald Trump, who has attacked critical media as “enemies of the American people”, is one obvious cause. Trump has also blocked White House access to multiple media outlets in retaliation for purportedly publishing ‘fake news’, a term he has propelled into common usage. However, the Obama administration – while slightly more subtle – also restricted journalists’ access to information and took particularly vindictive action against whistleblowers. Most famous of these is Chelsea Manning, recently released from jail after serving seven years of a 35 year sentence. Under Obama, the US prosecuted double the number of whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined. Journalists in the US have no right to protect their sources and some have been arrested, prevented from travelling or charged under the Espionage Act of 1917.

UK journalists have similarly been hit by extreme surveillance legislation such as the Investigatory Powers Act or ‘Snooper’s Charter’, which US whistleblower Edward Snowden labelled “the most extreme surveillance in the history of Western democracy, [going further than] than most autocracies”. Self-censorship has been encouraged by the Crime & Courts Act 2013, under which publishers are liable for costs of claims against them regardless of merit, and when this approach fails more direct action has been taken – for example, agents from British security agency GCHQ forcing Guardian journalists to destroy hard drives containing leaked information on US and UK spying. The Law Commission – a statutory independent body which recommends policy reform – even proposed this year a British ‘Espionage Act’ so vaguely worded that almost any journalist or whistleblower could be classified as a spy and jailed for up to 14 years.

Not harsh enough?

Despite their grim indictment, some maintain that RSF should be grading the US and UK even more harshly. The current methodology considers media independence from external influence, but not the extent to which the media landscape itself is independent. 90% of US media is owned by six groups (down from 50 in 1983), with five companies controlling 80% of UK media.

Whether or not RSF can be trusted to provide impartial analysis of press freedom in all countries, this latest report serves as a warning for citizens of Western democracies who view repression of journalism as an issue which only occurs abroad. There are many forms of press freedom, and when even Germany – where many still remember the Stasi secret police – can approve extreme surveillance legislation with barely a murmur of public outcry, it is clear the issue needs to be urgently brought back into public consciousness.

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