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The state of free press

The pandemic has provided a pretext for many countries to unabashedly block journalists’ access to information sources and reporting
A mic, camera and a pen in chains atop a grey wooden table

The 2021 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reveals that journalism was entirely blocked in 73 countries and constrained in 59 others, representing 73% of the 180 countries studied.

Not surprisingly, there is a disturbing level of public mistrust towards journalists – the 2021 Edelman Trust barometer found nearly 59% of respondents surveyed in 28 countries saying that journalists are deliberately misleading the public and are reporting false information.

According to Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of RSF, “Journalism is the best vaccine against disinformation. Unfortunately, its production and distribution are too often blocked by political, economic, technological and, sometimes, even cultural factors. In response to the virality of disinformation across borders, on digital platforms and via social media, journalism provides the most effective means of ensuring that public debate is based on a diverse range of established facts.”

The top and the bottom

The top 10 countries in this year’s index are Norway (1st), Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Costa Rica, Netherlands, Jamaica, New Zealand, Portugal and Switzerland.

Saudi Arabia (170th), Cuba, Laos, Syria, Iran, Vietnam, Djibouti, China, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea (180th) lie at the bottom of the index.

Norway has held the top position in the index for the fifth consecutive year. Meanwhile, Sweden moved from fourth to third position this year. Finland remained in the second position while Denmark slid from third to fourth position.

This year’s index has only 12 countries with favourable conditions for journalism to operate in. This is a drop from last year’s tally of 13. Attacks on journalists by extremists in Germany led to the country being stripped off its “good” classification this year.

Brazil fell by four places, putting it under the “bad” category, as carefully perpetrated attacks on journalists have increasingly become the trademark of the current administration.

Region by region comparison

As a region, Europe continued its dominance in the index. But it also witnessed a doubling in attacks on journalists, particularly in countries such as Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria.

Meanwhile, Eastern Europe and Central Asia managed to retain its second-to-last position in the regional rankings. An unprecedented crackdown on journalists in Belarus ensured the region never recovered to a better position – falling from 153 in 2020 to 158 in 2021.

Americas continued to do well in terms of press freedom. However, it registered an increase of 2.5% in its regional violations score. This was in part owing to the US, which saw multiple assaults on journalists (around 400) and arrests of media personnel (130) in President Trump’s final year.

Africa, meanwhile, continues to be hostile to journalists. The worst oppression was seen in Tanzania, where its late president John Magufuli “imposed an information blackout on the pandemic before his death in March 2021”.

The Middle East & North Africa region registered no significant change in performance and continued to remain last. Freedom of the press in most countries in the region was in a dire situation and the outbreak of the pandemic further empowered authoritarian states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria to suppress the media and tighten their grip on information.

What about Asia-Pacific?

The “censorship virus” continued to spread in China, engulfing Hong Kong (80th), where the recently announced National Security Law provides disproportionate powers to the state. Countries such as China (177th) and North Korea (179th) continued to remain among the worst places for journalists.

China’s relentless control of news and information has been further strengthened with the help of new technologies, and it has more than 120 journalists currently detained in its prisons. According to the report, China’s export of its model of media control to countries in its influence is a major cause of concern for press freedom.

The free press and journalism remain snubbed in India (142nd) as well. The government of the world’s largest democracy has increased its pressure on the media – harassing and threatening journalists who criticise it.

A similar tale is playing out in Bangladesh (152nd)—which witnessed an increase in police and civilian violence against reporters—and Pakistan (145th).

Bloggers and independent journalists are regularly targeted with imprisonment in Vietnam (175th). In all, more than 30 journalists and bloggers are still jailed. The government has also created its 10,000-strong cyber army that is “tasked with defending the Party and targeting dissident bloggers”. Most other Southeast Asian countries fare better, but find themselves in the bottom half of the index.

Where to from here?

Globally, since the start of 2020, 131 journalists have gone missing, 274 have been imprisoned and 37 have been killed. As the report highlights, “RSF’s global indicator—its measure of the level of media freedom worldwide—is only 0.3% lower in the 2021 Index than it was in 2020. However, the past year’s relative stability should not divert attention from the fact that it has deteriorated by 12% since this indicator was created in 2013”.

Information is empowerment – and free press being throttled systematically across the world is an issue of grave concern for society today; and one that is becoming a bigger problem by the year.

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