Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published its annual World Press Freedom Index on Wednesday, warning of an ‘age of post-truth, propaganda and suppression of freedoms’. The index highlighted the erosion of media liberty in democratic countries, the tightening grip of authoritarian regimes across the world, and the impact of war and conflict on journalists, as some of the major challenges to press freedom in 2017. According to the RSF, almost half of the world’s population has no access to freely reported news. The organisation says this is having a major impact on human rights and conflict.
First compiled in 2002, the World Press Freedom Index measures the freedom of the media in 180 countries, assessing indicators such as media independence, pluralism and the freedom and safety of journalists. The 2017 Index, which covers violations between January 1st and December 31st, 2016, assesses the threat to press freedom is at its highest levels since the Index’s inception. 21 countries now sit within the Index’s black range, indicating that the media freedom situation in the country is “very bad.” New additions to this category in 2017 include Bahrain (164th), Egypt (161st) and Burundi (160th). The bottom three places in the Index are occupied by North Korea, Eritrea and Turkmenistan respectively.
While restrictions on freedoms may be expected from totalitarian regimes, freedom of information and expression, once taken as a given in democracies, has been increasingly curtailed over the last 12 months. “The democracies that have traditionally regarded media freedom as one of the foundations on which they are built must continue to be a model for the rest of the world, and not the opposite,” RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said. “By eroding this fundamental freedom on the grounds of protecting their citizens, the democracies are in danger of losing their souls.” In the year of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the UK (down two places to 40th) and the US (also down two places to 43rd) experienced downturns linked to media bashing, disinformation and a preponderance of ‘fake news’. Increasingly authoritarian governments in Poland (54th), Hungary (71st) and Turkey (155th) have seen declines in media freedoms in those countries, and nominally democratic Russia remained ensconced in the bottom fifth of those countries surveyed.
At the other end of the scale, Scandinavian countries continue to have the world’s freest pressed, led by Norway. Costa Rica has the freest press in the Western Hemisphere at 6th place on the list, New Zealand (13th) leads in Asia-Pacific, while Namibia is first among African nations in 24th spot. The European Union and the Balkans remain the region where the media are freest, although according to the Index, its regional indicator (of the overall level of constraints and violations) registered the biggest increase in the past year – 3.8 percent. Other success stories include the Gambia (up two places to 143rd), which saw independent newspapers published after the fall of President Yahya Jammeh, and Colombia, which rose 5 places in the Index in the wake of the peace deal between the Government and FARC rebels.
Freedom of the press is an essential element in preventing conflict and promoting positive and sustainable peaceful societies. A 2013 American Political Science Review paper found that a free press limits the ability of policymakers to mislead the public about potential rival regimes during foreign policy crises. Other studies have linked reductions in press freedom to increased government totalitarianism, and press freedom to the success of the democratic peace concept. In that sense, the trends indicated in this year’s Index bode poorly for the prospects of sustainable peace across the world. As stated on the website of the RSF, “If journalists are not free to report the facts, denounce abuses, and alert the public, how would we resist the problem of children-soldiers, defends women’s rights, or preserve the environment?”
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