2018 Press Freedom Index: Documenting the Decline of Democracy
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Rebecca Vincent, UK bureau director for Reporters Without Borders.
Reporters Without Borders, known internationally as Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), recently launched its 2018 Press Freedom Index that chronicles the decline of press freedom worldwide. It shows that journalists are operating in increasingly hostile environments, whether it is in a war-torn countries like Syria and Yemen, under authoritarian rule in places like Russia and Turkey or even in the bastions of democracy like the US or Britain. While a handful of countries improved in ranking compared to the year before, the standard for press freedom has overall dropped, even among those ranking at the top.
This past year alone we have witnessed the assassinations of journalists in Europe, often viewed as the cradle of the free press. Investigative journalist Daphne Carauna Galizia was assassinated in Malta in October 2017; four months later, Ján Kuciak was shot dead alongside his girlfriend in Slovakia.
Political leaders across Europe have sought to undermine the legitimacy of journalism by lambasting reporting into corruption and human rights abuses as foreign propaganda. These same leaders have accused journalists of being liars who can’t be trusted while promoting their own state-sponsored media as the only trustworthy source of news. Citizens of these countries are losing access to honest, credible journalism, forced to rely on government mouthpieces instead.
While this growing animosity toward the press may be a new trend in Europe, it is not exclusive to it. The ascendency of Donald Trump in the US and his constant dismissal of a critical press as “fake news” has polarized the nation. Trust toward the press is dismally low, with people turning to actual fake news outlets as their main sources of information.
The Middle East continues to be the most dangerous region for journalists to work in, while China’s efforts to silence its independent media outlets have gained traction among other countries in the Asia Pacific region. The conditions for journalists, however, are improving in West and South Africa with the collapse of dictatorships and election of democratic leaders over the past year.
The RSF index is a reminder that the fall of democracies is not always immediate and caused by violent military coups. Instead, political freedom can deteriorate slowly over time. Just as press freedom is an attribute of democracy, its repression and censorship should be indicative of its decline, which threatens to dismantle the entire system.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Rebecca Vincent, the UK bureau director for Reporters Without Borders, about the status of press freedom around the world.
Dina Yazdani: What is the RSF Press Freedom Index exactly?
Rebecca Vincent: Basically, it’s a way we assess the performance in terms of press freedom by 180 countries. We’ve been putting the index out since 2002, ranking and scoring these 180 countries. It’s compiled based on a series of questionnaires sent to a panel of experts in every country, so it’s a really data-driven process that takes a whole year to compile. This year the survey had 117 questions that were focused on seven different indicators that assessed the press freedom climate in any given country — pluralism, media independence, environment, self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency and abuses.
Yazdani: How does this year’s index compare to last year’s? What are some notable trends and surprises?
Vincent: Unfortunately, what we’re seeing year by year is a global decline in press freedom. It’s worth noting that the global score dropped significantly in 2016, and it hasn’t recovered since. You can see at a glance how countries compare to each other, but that’s not something that is immediately visible — which is that everyone is getting worse. Even among our top performers we’ve seen deterioration, which is really concerning. The top five this year are Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland and Switzerland. The bottom five — where we have not seen any movement in terms of relative rankings, but their scores got worse as well — are China, Syria, Turkmenistan, Eritrea and North Korea.
There’s a map that accompanies the index. On our website you can see the index itself which shows the rankings as well as the country’s individual scores. It’s color coded according to a country’s performance, with the best performers marked in white, yellow being satisfactory, orange indicating noticeable problems, red a more difficult situation and black meaning serious violations in press freedoms. More countries are dipping in the black. This year Iraq joined that club.
Yazdani: You said that RSF started noticing this downward trend in 2016. What happened that year that led to this decline we are still witnessing?
#WorldPressFreedomDay: Open hostility towards the #media from political leaders + desire of authoritarian regimes to export their vision of #journalism = threat to #democracy#RSFIndex pic.twitter.com/upB2MbwDsZ
— RSF (@RSF_inter) May 3, 2018
Vincent: What we really noticed last year is this decline in democracies. Countries that are viewed as standard-setters in terms of press freedom have dipped. There’s a noticeable hostility toward the media that we saw in particular around the US presidential elections and EU referendum in the UK. The US slipped again this year — it is now 45th out of 180 countries. The UK held onto its ranking of 40 but, as I’ve said, that’s not something we should be proud of.
The neighborhood that score puts the UK in is not what you’ve expect for a country that has long been a standard-setter when it comes to human rights and fundamental freedoms. We are now between Trinidad and Tobago and Burkina Faso, which makes us one of the worst performing countries in Western Europe. We’re only above Italy in the region. Even though the UK hasn’t declined, we really hope that we can reverse this negative trend rather than holding steady at a poor ranking.
Yazdani: Earlier you mentioned that the top performers aren’t doing any better. Would you say that press freedom in general is falling? For example, Norway and Sweden may continue to be the most protective of press freedom, but are they also negatively affected by the global decline?
Vincent: Yes, they are. It’s worth noting here that the regional trend we noticed this year is that the region that respects freedom the most, which is Europe, has the sharpest decline this year. So four out of the five countries that experienced the sharpest declines are Malta, which dropped 18 paces to 65, largely due to the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia last October. The Czech Republic fell 11 places to 34. One thing we’d like to highlight there is that in October 2017, President Milos Zeman waved a dummy Kalashnikov that was inscribed with the words “for journalists,” really highlighting his attitude toward the press. Serbia also dropped 10 places to 76, and Slovakia dropped 10 places to 27. So although Europe still performs better than other regions, it really seriously declined this year, and we really need to look at why and address those causes.
Yazdani: It’s a grim picture. From your initial analysis, what is behind the erosion of press freedom in Europe, which is one of the safer regions for journalists to operate in?
Vincent: I think it’s part of the global trend that we noticed this year, which is an increased climate of hostility toward journalists. So this is no longer confined just to authoritarian countries like Turkey and Egypt. This is possibly due to the fact that more democratically elected leaders are seeing the media as adversaries rather than part of the foundations of democracy. Donald Trump is one example of this: He’s really a media-bashing enthusiast. He’s using Stalin’s label of “enemy of the people” to attack journalists. We’re seeing this impacting other countries. The line that is separating this verbal line of politicians is now dissolving as we’re now seeing less division there. These words have meaning, inciting actions against journalists, which is really alarming.
Yazdani: Would you say that it’s not only, as RSF calls them, “predator presidents” or authoritarian leaders who are exacerbating the hostile climate, but is it also the perception of journalism in general that has changed among the public? Is this growing “mediaphobia” also on the societal level?
Vincent: Absolutely. I think it’s a bit of a cycle. This hostile attitude toward the media that we’re seeing in many countries is eroding the public’s trust in the media and fueling this deterioration of free expression in a number of countries. That’s certainly been the case in the United States; I’d say to a lesser extent here in the UK. We don’t have as much of a lightning rod of a figure as Donald Trump. This is something I call out here as a hostile attitude of public officials, which certainly doesn’t help.
Yazdani: So in Europe, specifically in central Europe and the Visigrad Group, do you think there’s a connection between the rising tide of nationalism we’re witnessing there and the declining index rankings?
Vincent: Yes, I would say that is possibly the case in some of the central European countries — some of the countries that have been dipping in the index poll in particular, I would say. Less so is Western Europe — the rankings are due to other reasons. For example, here in the UK I have highlighted what I know is an issue in other Western European countries, that sometimes the violations that we are seeing in press freedoms are being done in the name of national security without that regard to protect this fundamental freedom. Here in the UK I’ve called out things related to surveillance. We’ve adopted the Investigatory Powers Act, which is the most extreme surveillance legislation in British history, and our concern for journalists is that there are not sufficient protection mechanisms built in for them within this legislation.
We are seeing threats for a possible new Espionage Act that could make it really easily to label journalists as spies, which could lead to possible prison sentences up to 14 years simply for obtaining leaked information. That is simply alarming. That’s not drafted legislation but is a proposal made by the Law Commission last year that we are remaining very vigilant about.
We are also seeing threats to banning encryption tools like WhatsApp — tools which journalists need to be able to do their jobs. I know that similar things are happening in some other Western European countries, so we really need to make sure that protection for press freedom is central to press freedom in the name of making ourselves safer because less press freedom doesn’t make us safer— it just makes us less free.
Yazdani: You mentioned WhatsApp and other communication tools that journalists use. On a global scale, what role does the increasing use and access to social media and communication apps generally play in the government’s growing mediaphobia and growing hostility toward reporters?
Vincent: I think it has contributed significantly. Some governments certainly don’t like that they can’t control social media, perhaps to the extent that they would like. I would say that the use of social media has also put a growing number of journalists at risk — and citizen journalists, I might add. In some of the cases of violence against journalists, even murder as we’ve seen, social media has played an increasing role. I’ll return to the case of Daphne Caruana Galizia who — although she was a dogged and committed investigative journalist and worked on big stories like the Panama Papers — was actually more well known in Malta for her blogging. That direct connection with her audience put her at greater risk.
We’ve seen the case in Mexico with some of the assassinations of journalists there that can be in retaliation for something posted on Facebook, for example. So it’s definitely indicative of the changing face of journalism, and particularly authoritarian leaders are scrambling to react to that and control it by various means.
Yazdani: So what can be done to protect reporters around the world, and what does RSF’s role in this look like?
Vincent: Well, safety of journalists has become one of our top global thematic priorities because we’ve seen nearly 800 murders of journalists in the past decade. Last year alone there were 65 murders of journalists worldwide in connection with their work. An alarming figure within that is 60% of those journalists killed last year were deliberately targeted; the other 40% were killed in the course of doing their jobs, but 60% were deliberately targeted. A good number of those were investigative journalists working to expose issues related to corruption, human rights abuses, other things that are high-risk.
Within that figure we also see a growing number of female journalists killed. In 2017, 10 women journalists were killed, double the five killed the year before. Almost all of those women journalists that were killed last year were very deliberately targeted. So there’s clearly a trend in more physical attacks on journalists — investigative journalists in particular — who are working to uncover these unsavory truths that powerful people want hidden.
One way we’re working to counter that is that we’re advocating for the creation of a UN special representative for the safety of journalists. This is something that we’ve been leading the campaign on for a couple of years now, and it’s recently gotten more momentum when French President Emmanuel Macron endorsed it and called for the creation of this mandate in his UN General Assembly speech. We have a growing number of countries behind this and a growing number of international human rights organizations, expression organizations and media outlets as well. So we’re hoping this will come into fruition in the near future. We feel that this issue is so critical that it merits its own role in the UN to ensure particular attention to this. There is an existing mandate on free expression, but it is really broad.
Yazdani: You mentioned the growing number of deaths among journalists. What about reporters in conflict zones like Syria? How has the business of reporting changed, and is that connected to the increasing number of journalists being killed?
Vincent: Well, actually I would highlight that last year was the least deadly year for journalists in quite some time. So even though the figures were bad, it was still less deadly. That doesn’t mean that the situation has improved. Part of it is that we think that there’s more attention to the issue of safety of journalists. We have seen a number of UN resolutions as a result of campaigns like ours, and there’s a growing awareness of media outlets and greater care being taken toward those that are sending journalists to risky places. So that is a positive.
On the flip side, we are seeing that fewer journalists are traveling to the most dangerous areas, and local journalists are having to flee those areas as well. So that is part of the reason for the decline. Syria remains the deadliest country for journalists last year — just barely ahead of Mexico.
Yazdani: Are there are countries in particular that RSF is keeping an eye on that could possibly drop down in the 2019 index? What about countries that could climb up?
Vincent: We’re always on the look out for both. We always have priority countries in mind in our work. It tends to be the countries where the performance is most alarming, so the worst of the worst, but also countries where we’ve seen sudden events that really shed light on a broader eroding climate that perhaps before we weren’t aware of. Malta is a great example of that, with the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia drawing attention to the country. A lot of people were not aware of the climate that allowed for her murder. This was unthinkable — an investigative journalist murdered in broad daylight in an EU state. But unfortunately now that seems to be becoming a trend in Europe.
So we’re on the lookout for countries that have similar conditions that could produce such horrific attacks to see what lessons can be drawn from attacks like that on Daphne and see if it can be prevented elsewhere. It’s worth noting that just less than five months after Caruana Galizia was murdered there was a second murder of a journalist in an EU country — that of Ján Kuciak in Slovakia. There’s been a number of other threats and attempted attacks. For example — this is outside the EU — but an investigative journalist was shot in Montenegro in May. She survived, but this is very much becoming an increasing trend.
Yazdani: Are there any countries that you’re optimistic about?
Vincent: South Korea has previously dipped significantly and fallen 30 places previously in our index. This year has improved and has gone up 20 places to 43 this year. It’s really under the new Moon Jae-in administration that this happened. Basically, a change in administration has signaled some positive political will to address the problem there. But some structural problems still remain.
This year Gambia also improved. It went up 21 places to 122 on the index. The new president there has promised a less restrictive media law and inclusion of free speech in the constitution. A commercial broadcasting media has been launched, and the print media are no longer as afraid to criticize the government. Ecuador improved as well and was up 13 places to 92 on the index this year. Again it was the election of a new president, Lenín Moreno, in May 2017 that has diffused tension between the government and privately owned media. So sometimes in countries where these problems are entrenched a change in leadership really can set the tone.
The RSF index gets a lot of attention as a naming and shaming tool, and there is an element of that, but we hope it will be used for states to identify their shortcomings and look at the reasons for their ranking — to use that as guidelines on areas to improve. We sometimes have these conversations with states on how to improve, and we’re happy to have those conversations. I know that here in the UK we are very much hoping that it can be used to identify these shortcomings.
Yazdani: I hope we can start having that conversation in the US, if the current decline raises any flags with the current administration.
Vincent: There are these conversations taking place in the US. It really has galvanized the independent media in the US, and the free expression community is really working together. Our US office is working on a Press Freedom Tracker, which tallies the situation in the US — the number of journalists detained, those that have equipment and other things seized and other violations on press freedoms there. Our US office is putting weekly roundups of press violations there that are worth keeping an eye on. Unfortunately, so far that is not translating into policy decisions to address these very serious issues, and Donald Trump’s media bashing is adding fuel to the fire rather than helping the situation.
Yazdani: What message do you have for aspiring journalists and reporters who see the increasing hostile climate toward the press? Should they be discouraged?
Vincent: They should definitely be aware of the risks. The silver lining is that there has been a real recognition of the need for independent, quality journalism. I would hope that that would encourage journalists to stick with it to learn about the tools at their disposal and ensure that they are working as safely as they can, but to know that what they are doing is at utmost importance — holding governments to account for protecting democracy.
There is a reason why the risks for investigative journalists covering corruption are increasing. It’s because it has had an impact, particularly through collaborative investigations such as the Panama Papers. Powerful people are reacting because there is more at stake now, and they know there will be consequences to these stories hitting the light. That makes it more important than ever to tell these stories.
There is safety in numbers too. The more journalists that are working on this sort of thing, the more powerful it is. We’ve been encouraged by the more collaborative efforts. For example, the Daphne Project has recently been launched. It’s excellent because it shows that although you might kill the messenger, you can’t kill the stories. I think continuing that work is so important and gives protection to those that will follow.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.