The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion New report paints a grim picture of global press freedom

Detained Reuters journalists Kyaw Soe Oo, front, and Wa Lone are escorted by police as they leave after a court hearing in Yangon, Myanmar, in August. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

The media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders — known internationally as Reporters Sans Frontières or RSF — has just released its 2019 Press Freedom Index, which highlights the downward spiral in free expression happening around the world.

The atmosphere is bleak, and alarmingly so in some locales where the press has long thrived. “The number of countries regarded as safe, where journalists can work in complete security, continues to decline, while authoritarian regimes continue to tighten their grip on the media,” the report says.

Last year, when I returned to work at The Post after being cited myself in a previous RSF index, I wrote my first story about an attack against an international journalist. And then another. And more after that.

I had no idea it would go on to become a main focus of my work. But I quickly understood from the gruesome tales I was recounting that the many instances of repression of journalists — taking place in far-flung corners of the world — should be seen as part of a rising threat, spreading globally like a virus, rather than as isolated incidents or one-off crimes.

The imprisonment and murder of journalists are nothing new, but the brazenness with which governments and other bad actors are targeting journalists can no longer be ignored. I hate to say it, but I suspect that we have yet to see the worst. The “hatred of journalists has degenerated into violence,” the report says, citing the murders of journalists in several countries — most shockingly within several democratic societies.

Much of the aggression being leveled at the media comes from on high. Some of the world’s most influential leaders are greenlighting murder.

In the United States, the Trump administration has shrugged off the murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of the Saudi regime, as well as the deaths of journalists in India whose killers have escaped prosecution during the Narendra Modi era. Europe, meanwhile, has witnessed the slaughter of reporters by crime syndicates working in cahoots with corrupt government officials.

There is a thread that connects the cases I write about: impunity.

A lack of accountability for the silencing of journalists by governments around the world is doing damage to a fragile ecosystem. And yes, this trend can be reversed — if our societies decide that we’re ready to take action.

Even so, RSF’s new report offers a frightening portrait of a rapid decline in governments upholding the rights to free expression. It points a finger at several key culprits.

The United States, long considered the leader in media protection, can no longer be relied upon to support this core American value. The Trump administration’s feckless response to the murder of Khashoggi, and the president’s repeated labeling of reporters as the “enemy of the people,” are symptoms of a much larger problem.

“The hostility towards journalists expressed by political leaders in many countries has incited increasingly serious and frequent acts of violence that have fueled an unprecedented level of fear and danger for journalists,” the report notes.

Civil liberties and the public’s right to know are being replaced by strategic interests and investment opportunities. Reporters Without Borders ranks the United States — home of the First Amendment and all it once stood for — at No. 48 on its list of freest countries for expression.

Turkey, where democracy appeared to be on the rise not that long ago, has devolved into the world’s number one jailer of journalists. Reporters seen as critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have received lengthy prison terms. Many popular news outlets have been shuttered and co-opted by the government.

India — home to more newspaper readers than the number of citizens in the United States — slid to 140th on the list after a year that saw the killings of at least six journalists go unpunished in 2018.

There a few bright spots on the map. Ethiopia, for example, jumped 40 spots on the list spots on the list to No. 110. The new government in Addis Ababa has released imprisoned journalists, lifted the ban on hundreds of websites, and loosened restrictions on expression. The Ethiopian capital will host the UNESCO’s commemoration of World Press Freedom Day in May.

Here and there, the dreadful state of press freedom is inspiring shows of support for what was long considered a privilege of free societies — and a cornerstone of democracy.

This week brought at least one encouraging sign. The Pulitzer Prize for international reporting was awarded to Reuters and two of its journalists from Myanmar, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are currently serving prison terms there. Their crime? Bravely exposing a government-ordered massacre of the country’s Rohingya minority.

Conferences, books and films about endangered journalists are proliferating. And while these projects are not free from controversy, the war raging against journalism is no longer a niche topic for a small advocacy community. It’s part of the zeitgeist.

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