This year’s report changed the United States’ press freedom rating by two points, from 21 to 23 — its worst rating in more than a decade. The group attributes this to a worsening political environment, the rise and polarization of partisan media outlets and an increase in Russian-sponsored propaganda related to the 2016 presidential election. President Donald Trump’s open disparagement of the press, both as a candidate and since taking office, also contributed to the diminished score, according to the report.
“No US president in recent memory has shown greater contempt for the press than Trump in his first months in office,” the report noted. “Trump’s attacks mirror initial actions in other countries where media freedom subsequently suffered far more drastic restrictions and interference.”
Still, the US is categorized as having a free press in the latest findings, and its constitutional protections were applauded.
“The United States remains one of the most press-friendly countries in the world,” the report said. “It enjoys lively, aggressive, and diverse media, and some of the strongest legal protections for reporting and expression anywhere in the world.”
Globally, the 2017 report found that only 31% of countries have a free press, which the group defines as “a media environment where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.”
Norway, Sweden, Finland, Belgium and Denmark had the most press freedom; North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Crimea and Eritrea had the least.
Wednesday 3 May marks World Press Freedom Day, amid a growing consensus that press freedoms are at risk internationally. Since 1993, the UNESCO-initiatied event has been used to draw attention to threats to free expression. The past year journalists have found themselves at severe risk in many countries, with the situation in Turkey, Syria and Azerbaijan being particularly acute.
UK and US dropping down RSF rankings
But 2016-17 has also seen the deterioration of the situation in Europe and the English-speaking world. This year’s edition of the RSF World Press Freedom Index has the US and UK dropping down the rankings, due to threats against journalists and their sources and the new surveillance laws that limit their ability to get important information into the public domain.
In its report on the United Kingdom, RSF cited new legislation using national secutiy to justify “heavy-handed” press treatment. As RSF notes, “Parliament adopted the most extreme surveillance legislation in UK history, the Investigatory Powers Act, with insufficient protection mechanisms for whistleblowers, journalists, and their sources, posing a serious threat to investigative journalism.”
A few spots down the list is the United States, whose drop RSF blames on both the current and previous presidents. RSF says Obama “waged a war on whistleblowers”, prosecuting more leakers than all presidents before him, while Trump has called the press the “enemy of the people.” Index on Censorship’s new report on press freedoms in the United States outlines a deteriorating situation that goes beyond presidential policies, taking in online harrassment, arrests at protests and increased legal threats.
Publishers and sources under fire
Sources are perhaps the most vulnerable part of the publication chain. They lack the legal privileges journalists have and, given the increased use of surveillance to identify them, find themselves particularly at risk of retailiation.
Coincidentally, World Press Freedom Day also marks the conclusion of Britain’s public consultation into the possibility of a new Espionage Act. This threatens to extend the reach and penalties in the UK’s existing Official Secrets Act, increasing the legal jeopardy for journalists and sources alike.
While publishers have traditionally been better protected than their sources, the Trump Department of Justice has taken the new step of going after WikiLeaks, Courage’s newest beneficiary. The Trump Department of Justice has made arresting Julian Assange a “priority” and has condemned the publishing organisation as a “hostile intelligence service”. The DOJ is reportedly considering charges for WikiLeaks staff on espionage and conspiracy counts, threatening to establish an extremely worrying precedent in which clearly journalistic behaviour could be criminalised.