Last weekend, as Nicaragua’s police brutally cracked down on protesters demonstrating against President Daniel Ortega, journalist Angel Gahona was presenting a related story on Facebook Live. During the middle of his report, a shot rang out. The image from his cellphone stopped working.
Today, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) releases its 2018 World Press Freedom Index, an annual review of 180 countries and their relationship with the media. In the report, there is very little to celebrate. The survey paints yet another depressing portrait of the gradual erosion of one of free societies’ most treasured principles.
“The unleashing of hatred towards journalists is one of the worst threats to democracies,” says Christophe Deloire, the secretary general of RSF. Politicians are exacerbating the problem, Deloire adds, by using propaganda to undermine fact-based public discourse. “To dispute the legitimacy of journalism today is to play with extremely dangerous political fire.”
Nicaragua has never been a model of freedom. In this year’s index it ranks 90th, the absolute median. The ranking seems fitting, given that Gahona’s fate is being replicated around the globe.
“Unfortunately, we expect to see violence against journalists in war zones, but the killing of journalists in countries that are not at war is something we are seeing more and more,” Margaux Ewen, the North America director for RSF, told me.
While Syria remains the most dangerous place to report from, assassinations of journalists in India, Mexico and Brazil made headlines over the past year, surpassed only by the killings of two investigative reporters inside the European Union, which has long been considered the most media-friendly region.
Sweden and Norway again rank as the freest media environments in the world, while the Netherlands replaced Finland in third place. Turkmenistan, Eritrea and North Korea are this year’s worst offenders — just as they were last year.
But the real story is told not by conditions in those countries that, for years, have been the reliable outliers at both extremes of the spectrum, but rather in the places where the situation has altered dramatically from the past.
Gambia, Zimbabwe and Angola all moved up in this year’s index, and that was in large part because longtime authoritarian leaders with predatory attitudes toward the media left power in each of those countries. Concerns persist in all those places, but there is reason to hope that valuable lessons have been learned.
Sadly, though, strongmen still in power in other regions are having the opposite effect.
The Philippines dropped six places to No. 133. President Rodrigo Duterte has regularly justified the killing of journalists. In 2016, he famously said, “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch.”
Turkey slid two places to No. 157. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who altered the country’s constitution to remain in power, has become one of the most egregious enemies of the press. Turkey, for decades considered a democratic success story in a contentious neighborhood, now has more journalists behind bars than anywhere else.
The United States, meanwhile, is not immune to these trends. While President Trump has been vocal in his antagonism to the press, calling reporters the “enemy of the people,” free expression in America has been under pressure for years.
Under the Espionage Act, whistleblowers are subject to prosecution if they leak information to the press and there is still no “shield law” guaranteeing journalists’ right to protect sources’ identities.
The nation of the First Amendment now ranks No. 45 in terms of press freedom. The lack of commitment by the U.S. government to one of our most precious democratic principles, according to RSF, is a key factor in the worsening situation facing media workers.
“When foreign leaders see the U.S. president denounce the media on a regular basis, it gives them free rein to do the same,” says Ewen. “We see it in authoritarian countries, but alarmingly we also see the impact in democratic ones, too. It is much harder for foreign leaders to take our requests for them to show greater respect for human rights and press freedom seriously when the U.S. does not lead by example.”