Reporters are under siege around the world, even in countries once celebrated as free-press bastions.
That is the message of a new report from Reporters Without Borders. Each year, the organization surveys the journalism landscape worldwide. Each country is assigned a ranking based on several factors: Are journalists able to do their work safely, without the threat of violence? Are independent outlets free to write what they want, without the possibility of being shuttered? Can citizens peruse a wide range of media? Can sources be kept confidential?
This year, the experts say, things are worse than ever. In the past year, the outlook for journalists and the media has gotten worse in nearly two-thirds of the 180 countries surveyed. In the past five years, the level of media freedom constraints and violations has risen 14 percent worldwide. “Violations of the freedom to inform are less and less the prerogative of authoritarian regimes and dictatorships,” the report's authors write. “Once taken for granted, media freedom is proving to be increasingly fragile in democracies as well.”
A key explanation for this is the rise of populism around the world, the report's authors say. They write, “discrediting the media is the preferred weapon of those who are 'anti-system.' " So outsider candidates such as President Trump call the media “among the most dishonest human beings on earth” and accuse them of spreading “fake news.” (In part because the report says Trump has set off a “witch-hunt against journalists,” the United States dropped two spots in 2016.) Nigel Farage, of the anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party, frequently disparaged the media during his Brexit campaign. Beppe Grillo, the comedian who heads Italy's xenophobic Five Star Movement, prefers blogging to answering questions from the journalistic “caste.”
The report also raises alarm bells about another scary trend — spying on sources. Germany, for example, passed a law extending mass surveillance powers of the country's intelligence agency without an exception for journalists. This year, the United Kingdom passed a similar measure.
Chile, Luxembourg, England and New Zealand have weakened protections of whistleblowers. And in Canada, a new anti-terrorism measure allows police officers to spy on journalists if they suspect that they are talking to criminals. In November, it was reported that at least six journalists had been spied on by the Quebec police. Weeks before, another reporter had his computer seized. In Montreal, a journalist had his mobile phone tapped by authorities.
Different regions face different challenges. In the Middle East, for example, wide-ranging wars make reporting a dangerous endeavor. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, semi-despots tightly control what kinds of journalism citizens can access. In the Asia-Pacific, the issue is prison time for journalists, as well as dictatorships that create information “black holes.” Things are even getting worse in Europe, a longtime leader on these issues.
North Korea, Eritrea and Turkmenistan — total autocracies all — ranked as the worst press offenders. In North Korea, for example, “even listening to a foreign radio broadcast can lead to a spell in a concentration camp.” Syria, the world's deadliest country for journalists, ranks just a bit higher, at 177. China and Vietnam also rank near the bottom, since they jail more reporters than any other country.
A few other countries to watch:
- Turkey is in a “downward spiral.” The country has fallen 56 places in the past 12 years. After a coup attempt this summer, the country's leaders imposed a state of emergency that has allowed authorities to shutter dozens of media outlets. More than 100 journalists are detained without trial.
- Reporters Without Borders also sounded the alarm on Hungary, led by Viktor Orban. The country fell four places this year.
- Ten journalists were murdered in Mexico in 2016. The country is riddled by corruption and organized crime, making reporting extremely dangerous, the report says.