‘Climate of Fear’ for Journalists Worldwide, Says 2019 Press Freedom Report
“Essentially, the climate that journalists work in has simply deteriorated worldwide.”
Hostility towards journalists across the globe is growing, according to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) last Thursday.
The report, which is published annually, revealed that authoritarian regimes continue to tighten their grip on media organizations, leading to an increase in hatred and fear haunting media workers.
North Korea, often dubbed the world’s most secluded nation, was not ranked at the bottom of the index for the first time in three years and was instead replaced by Turkmenistan. Norway once again topped the list, followed by Finland and Sweden.
Journalists in Democratic and Free Nations Are Also Under Threat
The Netherlands dropped one spot, now ranking fourth, indicating that media workers in open societies such as countries in Europe are still vulnerable to intimidation, Sylvie Ahrens-Urbanek of Reporters Without Borders German chapter said.
“Essentially, the climate that journalists work in has simply deteriorated worldwide,” said Ahrens-Urbanek, describing that the profession is now facing a “climate of fear.”
Germany’s ranking climbed two spots to 13th, triggered by an increase in hostility in other countries, including in Europe. Last year, RSF recorded 22 violent acts targeting German journalists.
Austria lost five spots, moving to 16th, due to the country’s populist government which tends to attack media organizations. Last September, Austria’s Home Ministry restricted communication access between the government and media outlets critical to Vienna.
Hungary slipped 14 places to 87th due to similar circumstances to those in Austria. Bulgaria is the only E.U. member ranked at the bottom (111st out of 180 nations surveyed), the same as last year.
Balkan Nations’ Press Freedom Is Declining
The index shows a significant decline in press freedom in some of the Balkan states, namely Serbia (90th, down 14 spots), Moldova (91st, -10) and Albania (82nd, -7). The situation is improving in Croatia (64th, +5), Macedonia (95th,+14) and Kosovo (75th, +3), which declared its independence in 2008.
The report said in Serbia: “The number of attacks on media is on the rise, including death threats, and inflammatory rhetoric targeting journalists is increasingly coming from the governing officials. Within five years of President Aleksandar Vucic in effect governing the country, Serbia has become a place where practicing journalism is neither safe nor supported by the state.”
The US Is a Problematic Country for Journalists
While the U.S. has laws protecting press freedom, the country’s press freedom index has actually dropped in the last three years since the release of the index in 2002, due to President Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on the media and claims that media is the enemy of Americans. The 2019 index showed that the U.S. ranked 48th, slipped three spots.
In August 2018, hundreds of U.S. media organizations united to write about the importance of press freedom in their editorial sections and slammed Trump for dubbing the media as the enemy of the American people. The Boston Globe created the #EnemyOfNone hashtag, and other media organizations followed suit.
Trump also banned four journalists from covering the summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in Hanoi last February. Those journalists were blocked, as they asked sensitive questions about Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen’s testimony before Congress prior to the Hanoi talks.
Latin America Nations Suffer the Biggest Decline in Press Freedom
Nicaragua dropped the most (24), falling to 114th due to continuous intimidation targeting journalists who covered anti-Ortega demonstrations. Many of them were sent to jail on terrorism charges.
Despite gaining three spots from 147th to 144th in the 2019 index, Mexico is among the deadliest country for media professionals. At least 10 journalists were murdered in Mexico in 2018, and the killing of journalists escalated before the country’s election in July last year.
Last March, Mexican journalist Santiago Barroso was shot to death at his home. His death was allegedly linked to political corruption and his planned story about a drug cartel in his hometown.
Barroso’s case emerged after the RSF urged the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate the killing of 102 journalists in Mexico between 2012 and 2018.
The Middle East and Africa: Still the Most Dangerous Places for Reporters, but Some Improvement Seen
The killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi made international headlines especially given the close relationship between the oil-rich nation and the U.S. Partly in response to the Khashoggi killing, Saudi’s spot on the index dropped three spots from 169 in 2018 to 172 in 2019.
Despite Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s claim to be opening up the country, press freedom is still highly restricted. Since 2017, the number of journalists and citizen-journalists sent to jail have more than tripled.
Last March, a U.K.-based rights group ALQST reported that seven bloggers and writers who often criticize the royal family, including two American citizens, were arrested by Riyadh.
Journalists in other Middle Eastern countries, such as Bahrain (167th, -1) and Egypt (163rd,-2), are also imprisoned without facing a trial. Iran’s press freedom index slipped to 170th after jailing more journalists and citizen-journalists who criticized Tehran in social media.
Some positive news comes from Africa. Ethiopia surprised the world by jumping 40 places to 70th in the 2019 index, thanks to reforms carried out by the country’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The prime minister has freed thousands of journalists and political prisoners, as well as canceled charges against diaspora-based media organizations, Africanews reported.
Gambia has also improved its press freedom as the country’s ranking climbed 30 places to 92nd.
‘‘New media outlets have been created, journalists have returned from self-imposed exile, and the criminalization of defamation has been declared unconstitutional,’‘ the RSF report said of Gambia’s press freedom.
What About Asia?
In Southeast Asia, Malaysia’s press freedom is the best in the region (123rd), followed by Indonesia (124th), the Philippines (134th), Thailand (136th), Myanmar (138th), Cambodia (143rd), Singapore (151st), Brunei (152nd), Laos (171st) and Vietnam (176th).
Malaysia recently annulled an anti-fake news bill considered a threat to press freedom. Its neighbor Singapore is planning to issue an anti-fake news law despite criticism that the regulation could impede press freedom.
In the Philippines, Maria Ressa, a prominent veteran Filipino reporter, was arrested for criticizing President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy to combat drug crimes. After a 21-hour detention, the former CNN reporter was released on bail.
China applies some of the strictest censorship laws worldwide for all media workers, both domestic and international. In the 2018 RSF report, 60 media workers were detained, 46 of whom were bloggers.
Journalists in Pakistan are enjoying freedom much more than their colleagues in Asian nations. But they are often prone to attacks from radical groups, Islamic militant groups and intelligence agencies, RSF wrote in their report.
Overall, journalism can be an extremely dangerous profession. According to a 2016 report from the International Federation of Journalists, there have been 2,297 journalists killed since the 1990s. However, many more journalists are intimidated, arrested, harassed, injured or simply go missing due to the pursuit of journalism.