Press freedom “problematic” in almost 40% of Europe & Central Asia


Almost 40% of Europe and Central Asia are in a “problematic” press freedom situation, according to the Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2022 World Press Freedom Index published on Tuesday (3 May). 

Globally, the situation is classed as “very bad” in a record 28 countries, with Belarus and Russia among them. At the other end of the scale, three Nordic countries – Norway, Denmark and Sweden – lead the table with the highest scores.

RSF’s methodology for compiling the index has changed this year, complicating comparisons with data from previous years, but including new indicators by which the level of press freedom is calculated, including political, economic and sociocultural context as well as legal framework and security. 

Based on this, there have been some notable changes to the rankings within Europe. While Croatia, Bulgaria and the UK all climbed in the rankings this year, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands have each been downgraded from “good” to “satisfactory”.

Countries where there have been long-standing concerns over press freedom, such as Poland and Hungary, remained relatively stable, shifting from 64th to 66th and 92 to 85th place, respectively.

Other EU states slipped markedly in the rankings, however, reflecting growing concern over press freedom developments: Greece, for example, fell from 70th to 108th place in one year – the worst of all EU countries –  and Slovenia from 36th to 54th.

The proliferation of opinion media, based on what RSF describes as the “Fox News model”, along with the spread of disinformation on social media, have increased divisions within democratic societies, the organisation said, and democracies have been weakened by political control of the media. 

This trend can be seen in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, RSF noted, where a propaganda war was begun long before the physical one. Since the outbreak of conflict, the Kremlin has cracked down on independent media in Russia, which ranks 155th out of 180 countries in this year’s tally. 

Russia wages war against independent media

As the war in Ukraine continues, Russia has stepped up efforts to restrict the availability of information, targeting independent reporting on both sides of the border. 

“Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of RT (the former Russia Today), revealed what she really thinks in a Russia One TV broadcast when she said ‘no great nation can exist without control over information’”, said RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire.

“The creation of media weaponry in authoritarian countries eliminates their citizens’ right to information but is also linked to the rise in international tension, which can lead to the worst kind of wars.”

Social and opinion media are also fuelling division within democratic societies. This is the root of increasing political and social tensions in France (ranked 26th overall), for instance, RSF said.

“Domestically, the ‘Fox News-isation’ of the media poses a fatal danger for democracies because it undermines the basis of civil harmony and tolerant public debate,” Deloire added. 

“Urgent decisions are needed in response to these issues, promoting a New Deal for Journalism, as proposed by the Forum on Information and Democracy, and adopting an appropriate legal framework, with a system to protect democratic online information spaces.”

In “illiberal democracies”, the growing control of governments over independent media is also playing a role in rising polarisation, RSF said, most noticeable within the EU in Poland, which came in at 66th place this year. 

'Free media!': Thousands protest Polish media law

Thousands of people protested outside the Polish president’s palace on Sunday (19 December) against a new media law that critics say is aimed at silencing the country’s main independent news channel.

Europe and Central Asia still have the highest percentage (13.21%) of territories classified as being in a “good situation” in terms of press freedom compared to the rest of the world, but observers have warned that the situation is worsening. 

Just last week, a media freedom report released by the Council of Europe found that press freedom alerts in the EU increased by 41% in 2021 compared to those registered the previous year. 

Press freedom alerts increase 41% in 2021, says Council of Europe

The number of press freedom alerts amongst Council of Europe (CoE) member states soared by 41% during 2021 and should be a wake-up call for Europe, according to their newly released annual report.

Some 32% of territories in Europe and Central Asia were found by RSF to be in a “satisfactory” position, and 7.5% were in a “difficult” one, but the largest percentage – 39% – were recorded as having the second-lowest classification: that of a “problematic” situation. 

Journalism in Europe is also growing increasingly deadly: 2021 saw the killings of six journalists in Europe, including Greek reporter Giorgos Karaivaz and Dutch journalist Peter R. de Vries, and RSF has recorded the deaths of 25 media workers since the beginning of this year, many of which were a result of the war in Ukraine. 

The European Commission has recently taken a number of steps to address the twin issues of journalist safety and media freedom in the EU. In September, the Commission released its recommendation on the safety of journalists, a set of voluntary measures that member states could take in order to better protect their media workers on and offline. 

Commission launches recommendation on safety of journalists

European Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová presented on Thursday (16 September) a Recommendation on the Safety of Journalists, urging EU countries to address security concerns in an environment increasingly hostile towards the media.

This was followed by a more concrete step last week, with the publication of the EU executive’s anti-SLAPP directive, intended to tackle the deployment of abusive lawsuits designed to silence journalists and activists.

The initiative includes both an EU-level directive, which will focus on cases with “cross-border implications”, and a recommendation to member states on the ways in which they can take action to introduce similar safeguards on domestic cases. 

The Commission is also expected to publish its proposal for a European Media Freedom Act, expected to introduce bloc-wide safeguards on media pluralism this summer.

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Zoran Radosavljevic]


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