The 2019 World Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders is subtitled “A cycle of fear.”
It’s not just journalists but also citizens who should be afraid. An increasingly repressive reporting era erodes their rights, too.
The report “shows that an intense climate of fear has been triggered — one that is prejudicial to a safe reporting environment. The hostility toward 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.”
At stake is freedom itself.
“Halting this cycle of fear and intimidation is a matter of the utmost urgency for all people of good will who value freedoms acquired in the course of history,” Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (known by its French acronym RSF), wrote in the report.
These hard-fought freedoms are fragile and depend on a free press. But pressure on journalists means media freedom is in retreat in many nations. In fact, of 180 countries considered, nearly three-fourths have “problematic,” “bad” or “very bad” press freedoms, leaving only 24% classified as “good” or “fairly good,” down from 26% last year.
Many of the most repressive regimes got even worse this year, including China (177th). The country was the subject of a separate RSF report, “China’s Pursuit of a New World Media Order,” on Beijing’s efforts to export its press repression model. Meanwhile, there’s Russia (149th), where “the Kremlin has used arrests, arbitrary searches and draconian laws to step up the pressure on independent media and the internet,” as well as two of the world’s worst jailers of journalists, Turkey (157th) and Iran (170th).
Repression remains the worst in the Middle East, where “hopes of democratization raised by the Arab Spring are fading by the year.” The report particularly notes the brutal slaying of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi in an Istanbul consulate that “shed a harsh light on the risks run by the region’s journalists when they fail to either repeat the state’s propaganda or remain silent.”
Nearby North Africa has a press environment in which “journalism is sorely tested by the manifest desire of its leaders to control the media and prosecute journalists who investigate corruption or cover protests and popular uprisings.” In Sub-Saharan Africa, the report says, “hatred toward journalists, attacks on investigative reporters, censorship (especially online and on social networks) and economic and judicial harassment all undermined independent reporting and quality journalism.” Overall, however, the Americas, particularly Venezuela (148th) and Nicaragua (114th), saw the sharpest decline.
There are exceptions, of course. Ethiopia “soared a spectacular 40 places following a change in government.” And some perennial press freedom exemplars stood out, too, including Norway, Sweden and Finland. Those three are “our index Olympians,” said Sabine Dolan, RSF’s interim executive director, who in an interview added that these and other Nordic nations have constitutional, legal and cultural values that promote press freedoms. Dolan recalled that when President Donald Trump met Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki summit, there were billboards in English and Russian that read “Mr. President, Welcome to the Land of the Free Press.”
That’s a characterization that used to describe the U.S. But that proud legacy is lagging: America slid three places to 48th (48th!) in the world, just below Romania.
The horrific attack on the Annapolis Capital Gazette last year that killed five was the worst manifestation of RSF’s ranking. But beyond that, the report states that “the physical threats to American media were compounded by financial challenges, access denials and legal battles.”
Above all, it’s White House hostility that mars America’s image as a First Amendment model, with the Trump administration denying access to information and events of public interest, including pulling press passes and not granting media access. All this amid Trump’s repeated tweeting about “fake news” and “enemies of the people,” a Stalin-era term that was eventually banned even in the Soviet Union.
“President Trump’s relentless verbal attacks and discrediting of any critical media it seems have had a very significant impact,” Dolan said. “And this contempt for the media that is being communicated from the very top is becoming more institutionalized.”
“We see repercussions in this,” Dolan said. “A lot of authoritarian leaders are adopting this behavior and even the terminology of ‘fake news,’ ” she continued, naming Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, among others.
Autocrats used to be routinely rebuked by U.S. presidents of both parties for repressing the press, but many have taken note of Trump’s reluctance to hold Saudi Arabia’s crown prince responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, despite a CIA assessment that Mohamed bin Salman ordered it.
“It shows that it’s not human rights and the welfare of journalists and of journalism that are of a concern of the present administration,” Dolan said. “So it sent chills around the world, the opacity behind the investigation and the fact that they are unwilling to call this out.”
Journalists were willing to call it out, just as they shine a light on so many essential issues. Some of the best exemplars of this ethos were awarded Pulitzer Prizes on Monday, including Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two brave Burmese reporters who are now imprisoned for their work “expertly exposing the military units and Buddhist villagers responsible for the systemic expulsion and murder of Muslims from Myanmar,” Pulitzer judges wrote.
Among awards for U.S.-based reporting, the Gazette won a special citation for its “courageous response” to the attack. And the Baton Rouge Advocate won for its investigation of a law allowing juries to convict defendants without unanimous verdicts. (The Star Tribune’s Brandon Stahl, Jennifer Bjorhus, MaryJo Webster and Renée Jones Schneider were finalists in the same category for their extraordinary “Denied Justice” series on how Minnesota’s criminal justice system has often failed victims of sexual assault.)
Two Pulitzers went to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times for investigations into Trump’s finances and hush-money payments. Further confirmation that the pursuit of the truth belied the president’s persistent “fake news” lies came from the Mueller report released on Thursday, which detailed the mendacity of many in the administration, including Trump and White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who admitted under oath that she lied to reporters.
“The United States used to be a beacon to press freedoms around the world,” Dolan said. “Today, instead of inspiring, being a role model for democratic values and shared values, it’s becoming increasingly a role model for more authoritarian heads of state.”
America can be that beacon again if it elects leaders who value the critical link between a free press and free people.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.