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Press Freedom is Receding Worldwide
The latest World Press Freedom Index indicates the United States and other large democracies are reaching a tipping point.
EXPLORE THE MAP: Use the layer selector in the top-left corner of this interactive map to explore the changes in the World Press Freedom Index over time. The top layer shows the index data for 2019, with labels for the five best and five worst countries. Uncheck that box to view how countries scored on the index in 2013. Uncheck both of those layers to view each country’s change in score over six years. The more orange a country’s color, the more its index score has increased since 2013. Countries in blue lowered their index scores over time.
The situation for press freedom is bleak. Reporters Without Borders has published the World Press Freedom Index since 2002. This map, showing trends since 2013, paints a grim picture. Put simply, the darker the color, the worse the situation, and there is a steady darkening across the globe.
The global indicator calculated by Reporters Without Borders has worsened by 13 percent since 2013, and the overall global score has gone from 3,395 points in 2013 to 3,845 in 2019. It has never been so high since we started compiling the index. The number of countries colored white on the World Press Freedom Map (i.e., where the situation is “good”) has decreased by 40 percent in five years. According to Reporters Without Borders’ measurement, just 9 percent of the world’s population now lives in countries where journalists can operate freely and independently.
This worrying trend affects all continents: All regional scores have worsened in this period, except for the Asia-Pacific.
Although it remains the region where press freedom is respected most, the European Union and the Balkans registered the biggest deterioration. Journalists have been murdered in the EU every year since 2017: Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta in 2017, Jan Kuciak in Slovakia in 2018, and Lyra McKee in Northern Ireland just weeks ago.
The rise of authoritarian strongmen, from Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to Donald Trump in the United States; the debasement of debate; and the normalization of hostile speech against media institutions have fostered a climate of fear and nurtured violent actions against journalists, even in places where press freedom has historically been strong.
Some of the world’s largest democracies are now reaching a tipping point for press freedom. Trump’s America and Bolsanaro’s Brazil are now officially classified as “problematic” on the World Press Freedom Index, with their leaders making frequent verbal attacks on journalists and adding to a climate of fear. India is classified as “bad,” thanks to the politically motivated mobs that torment and threaten reporters on social media.
Meanwhile, the promise of borderless global communication has been perverted by the practice of repression without boundaries—most brutally expressed in the gruesome murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
Over the past few years, internet shutdowns have become commonplace, and authoritarian regimes increasingly use sophisticated surveillance technologies (often supplied by companies based in democratic countries) to track down their critics. Ever stricter controls on internet usage have also affected citizens’ ability to consume and share information.
War, of course, has also taken a devastating toll on journalists, who are increasingly targeted, especially by nonstate actors. The ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen, plus outbreaks of conflict in countries across the globe, meant that 2018 was one of the deadliest years on record for reporters, with 80 journalists killed worldwide. The number of media workers killed in 2019 already stands at 12.
There are, of course, outliers. Tunisia, the only country to pursue a transition to democracy after the Arab Spring uprisings, has jumped 66 places in the index since 2013, from 138 to 72. Ethiopia, which long languished at the bottom of the table, has seen notable improvements under the government of Abiy Ahmed. For the first time since 2008, there are no Ethiopian journalists in jail. Uzbekistan also released all journalists jailed under the late dictator Islam Karimov, including the world’s longest-held journalist, Muhammad Bekjanov. As a result of this and other encouraging moves, the country is no longer classified as “bad” on the World Press Freedom Index.
Johann Bihr is the head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders.