In Turkey, journalists can be jailed for printing unflattering pictures of President Recep Erdogan. In Russia, nearly all media outlets deliver the government’s propaganda. In the US, journalists covering protests have been harassed, attacked, and jailed.
All around the world, press freedoms are eroding, causing open societies to falter and collapse, according to a new report from Reporters’ Without Borders (also called Reporters Sans Frontieres, or RSF).
The World Press Freedom Index’s numbers paint a grim picture: countries that have historically protected the press are enacting restrictive policies, and countries that have historically kept the press in check are further restricting what can be reported.
“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,” RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said in a statement. “Where will this downward spiral take us?”
In the contest for the most repressive place in the world, North Korea beat out Eritrea, but repression grew in nearly every country in the world. Norway became the most hospitable environment, but that’s only because the previous top country, Finland, became more hostile.
The US, meanwhile, fell two places to 43rd out of 180, because of the rhetoric directed at reporters and media outlets, the ongoing attack on whistleblowers, a crackdown on protest coverage, the continued consolidation of media, and more, the report found.
Turkey has the most reporters in jail following Erdogan’s relentless purge after the failed coup of 2016. Syria remains the deadliest place, as both the government and jihadi rebels attack anyone reporting on the conditions there.
The report argues that two trends are ascendent around the world — democracies are falling and strongmen are rising and a driving force behind these developments is the global assault on the press.
Governments, businesses, and criminal organizations use a range of tactics to suppress journalists, the RSF said.
Censorship is an easy way to mute the press' ability to influence public opinion — a tactic ruthlessly pursued by China.
Bashing journalists to discredit the entire institution is common all around the world and has been used to unsettling effect by US President Donald Trump.
The powerful often try to suppress coverage of sensitive issues like conflicts of interest or outright corruption through political pressure. In Niger this took the form of arresting three journalists who reported unflattering stories on political leaders, and in Poland the government continued its consolidation of power over media outlets by purging dissenting voices. The message is clear: cross these boundaries and the costs will be steep.
Surveillance is another way journalism is being stopped. Reporters regularly have their phones tapped and their movements tracked to reveal sources and whistleblowers. This has the overall effect of making investigative journalism more challenging as people become more reluctant to confide in reporters.
Press freedom and independence is also being threatened by the increasing consolidation of media outlets. In France, for example, the billionaire Vincent Bolloré is buying up outlets and suppressing coverage of events that challenge his business interests.
Independent media outlets around the world are being forced to shut down after their funding is blocked or disrupted by government actions. For example, the conservative Law and Justice government in Poland is forcing government agencies to cancel their subscriptions of specific newspapers.
“All of these different kinds of pressure are steadily eroding our democracies from within and can insidiously induce journalists to censor themselves to avoid economic reprisals or the danger of being the target of increasingly violent verbal attacks,” RSF Editor-In-Chief Virginie Dangles said. “This trend is all the more worrying because democratic governments no longer hesitate to use ever more radical methods to obstruct the work of the media.”
Then there are the laws tailored to make it all but impossible to freely report on events. In Spain, the Protection of Citizen Security Law limits how the police can be covered and photographed. In Tanzania, protests that authorities didn’t want to happen were simply outlawed.
The global assault on press is primarily about controlling narratives within a society.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg.
When a government can limit and shape information, it becomes much easier to conceal corruption, to crush dissent, to plough forward with policies that harm the public good. When a government can say what is true and just and what is false and traitorous, it becomes much easier hold onto power, to create consensus, to kill democracy.
These are all trends that are growing in the world — and they must be reversed.
"By eroding this fundamental freedom on the grounds of protecting their citizens, the democracies are in danger of losing their souls,” said SF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire.