The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Report: U.S. declines again in press-freedom index, falls to ‘problematic’ status

President Trump’s rhetoric was cited in a report that discusses declining press freedom in the United States.
President Trump’s rhetoric was cited in a report that discusses declining press freedom in the United States. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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For the third time in three years, the United States’ standing in an annual index of press freedom declined, a result the report’s authors attributed to President Trump’s anti-press rhetoric and continuing threats to journalists.

Reporters Without Borders, the international group that compiles the World Press Freedom Index, ranked the United States 48th among 180 nations and territories it surveyed. The U.S. ranking fell three spots from 2018, continuing a downward trend that began in 2016.

The United States finished just above Senegal and just below Romania on this year’s list.

It also fell into the ranks of countries whose treatment of journalists is considered “problematic,” the first time the United States has been so classified since the organization began the index in 2002.

The top ranks were dominated once again by European countries: Norway ranked first for the third time in a row, followed by Finland, Sweden, Netherlands and Denmark. The bottom of the list included, in descending order, Vietnam, China, Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan.

The group cited both Trump’s rhetorical hostility toward the American news media and a possibly related phenomenon — increasing threats of harm against reporters — for the nation’s declining status.

Among other signs of poor press health, it cited the Trump administration’s curtailment of White House briefings; the revocation of CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s White House press pass; the banning of a second CNN reporter, Kaitlan Collins, from an open-media event; and the harassment of journalists at Trump’s reelection rallies. Beyond this, there were bomb threats made to newsrooms; an alleged murder plot aimed at prominent media figures and Democratic politicians by a Coast Guard lieutenant; and increased security measures in newsrooms nationwide.

It noted that “hatred of the media” reached the point where a gunman killed four journalists and another employee at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis in June.

“Amid one of the American journalism community’s darkest moments, President Trump continued to spout his notorious anti-press rhetoric, disparaging and attacking the media at a national level,” it said. “Simultaneously, journalists across the country reported terrifying harassment and death threats, online and in person, that were particularly abusive toward women and journalists of color.”

Journalists were also murdered last year in Malta, Mexico, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Ghana. Perhaps most infamously, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian dissident, was murdered by government operatives in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last fall — a homicide that “sent a chilling message to journalists well beyond the borders of Saudi Arabia.”

Violence against journalists is routine in some parts of the world, as are campaigns of government intimidation and online harassment, the group said. It said only 24 percent of the nations in its survey could be classified as “good” or “fairly good” in their treatment of the press, a slight decline from last year.

The greatest regional deterioration worldwide, it said, was in the Americas, led by the decline of the United States, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Mexico and Brazil. Brazil recently elected a new president, conservative Jair Bolsonaro, who is sometimes called “the Trump of the Tropics” for his disparagement of political opponents, women and gay people and his frequent verbal attacks on Brazil’s news media.

The rankings are based on the responses of media professionals, lawyers and sociologists around the world to an 87-question survey that assess censorship and pluralism in each country. The results are combined with a database of reported abuses and violence against journalists.