Western democracies set low standards as global media freedom declines

Trump and politicians in other democracies are normalising attacks on the press, warns Reporters Without Borders. By Alessio Perrone.

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The situation is considered to be 'very bad' in a total of 21 countries. © Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

First world democracies are setting lower standards for freedom of the press relative to the rest of the world, a newly published study by Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres, RSF) has found.

Presented on Wednesday in London, RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index found media freedom to be deteriorating in nearly two thirds (62.2 per cent) of the 180 countries analysed, including countries traditionally considered model democracies like Canada, New Zealand and European democracies.

Media freedom has never been so threatened, and RSF’s ‘global indicator’ has never been so high, which means that media freedom is under threat now more than ever. The situation is considered to be 'very bad' in a total of 21 countries.

However, violations of the freedom to inform are ‘less and less the prerogative of authoritarian regimes,’ RSF said in a statement.

In Europe, violation of press freedom has risen faster than anywhere else in the world: 17.5 per cent in the past five years, compared to 0.9 per cent in the Asia-Pacific region and to 4.2 per cent in North Africa and the Middle East.

In the US, Donald Trump has repeatedly singled out The New York Times, and called journalists ‘very bad people’.

Britain dropped two spots in the Index’s country ranking and finds itself at the 40th place after a ‘high-profile media bashing’ in the Brexit campaign, and after parliament passed the Investigatory Powers Act in November 2016, under which police can hack into civilians’ phones and computers for security purposes. It is often referred to as the most extreme surveillance legislation ever adopted in Britain. Meanwhile, a new Espionage Bill is on its way to Parliament, and Prime Minister Theresa May is refusing to appear in public debates.

Turkey was one of the countries to fall most in the ranking. After the failed coup attempt, President Recep Erdoğan clamped down on media freedom, and the country became the world’s biggest jailer of journalists. France, Poland and Hungary were other fallers, while Scandinavian countries continue to perform well.

Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea remain the three worst performing countries, but commentators have expressed concerns that attacks on the media in countries traditionally considered defenders of free speech might be lowering the standards worldwide, and justifying leaders in developing countries to do the same, including the regimes in Syria and Turkey.

Speaking at the launch event, The Guardian’s media commentator and City University London’s Professor of Journalism Roy Greenslade gave the example of Britain’s Investigatory Powers Act being emulated by autocratic states around the world.

‘It has been quoted by the Chinese government when defending its own anti-terror legislation,’ Mr Greenslade said.

‘It has been seen and used around the world to clamp down on press freedom.’

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, President Trump’s attacks on the press have also encouraged others to do the same, according to a number of commentators.

Presenting the annual report Attacks on the Press on Tuesday Night, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists Joel Simon said, ‘The language Trump has adopted is very reminiscent of the language used in autocratic states. I have no doubt hearing that from the President of the United States empowers autocratic states.’

RSF sais in a statement, ‘The hate speech used by Trump and his accusations of lying helped to disinhibit attacks on the media almost everywhere in the world.’

RSF said the passing of laws giving sweeping surveillance powers to authorities in anti-terrorism bills have contributed to the continuing decline of many countries previously regarded as virtuous.

Mr Greenslade said that even in Britain, media freedom has become ‘a fragile flower that requires constant protection’.

‘This country needs as much vigilance to ensure we have press freedom and to show a good example, not justify Assad and Erdoğan.’

RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said, ‘The democracies that have traditionally regarded media freedom as one of the foundations of which they are built must continue to be a model for the rest of the world, and not the opposite.

‘The rate at which democracies are approaching the tipping point is alarming for all those who understand that, if media freedom is not secure, then none of the other freedoms can be guaranteed,’ Deloire said. ‘Where will this downward spiral take us?’

Published annually by RSF since 2002, the World Press Freedom Index measures the level of media freedom in 180 countries, including the level of pluralism, media independence, and respect for the safety and freedom of journalists. The 2017 Index takes account of violations that took place between 1 January and 31 December of 2016.