Media Watchdog Warns of Rising Threat to Press Freedom

Reporters Without Borders says the world is entering a decisive decade for journalism.

Signs in the briefing room of the White House outline social-distancing measures being taken to separate reporters. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

(CN) — The coronavirus pandemic is endangering media freedom worldwide, a global journalism watchdog group reported Tuesday.

Reporters Without Borders evaluated and ranked the situation for journalists in 180 countries in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index. The organization cautioned that governments might use uncertainty surrounding the Covid-19 outbreak to justify unlawful barriers to press freedoms.

“We are entering a decade of multiple crises for journalism, with the coronavirus as an exacerbating factor,” the group tweeted Tuesday.  

According to the media watchdog, there is a correlation between suppression of media freedom in response to the coronavirus pandemic and where countries rank in the index. For example, China and Iran, which rank 177 and 173 respectively, both worked to conceal the extent to which Covid-19 had spread in the two countries.

The United States ranks 45 on list. While the country is up three spots from last year, Reporters Without Borders says the U.S. is “no longer a champion of press freedom.”

President Donald Trump’s expressed hostility toward members of the press and his response to the current health crisis are not the only reasons that the U.S. is uncomfortably low on the list.

Between the discovery that officials began tracking some journalists last year and the Justice Department having charged Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange with 17 counts under the Espionage Act, the watchdog group said the White House has conveyed a “dangerous anti-press sentiment.” 

Also attributable to America’s relatively low ranking is the fact that the last daily televised White House press briefing led by a press secretary was held in March 2019.

According to Reporters Without Borders, “the White House has strategically replaced traditional forms of press access with those that limit the ability of journalists to ask questions of the administration.” 

Norway topped the index for the fourth year in a row, followed by Finland and Denmark. Due to an increase in cyber-harassment, both Sweden and the Netherlands each fell one spot.  

Across the world, the report shows, the media industry is suffering an economic crisis as well as a crisis of trust.

It cites the Edelman Trust Barometer, which studies the public’s trust in institutions. In the latest international survey, 57% of respondents thought the news media they consumed is “contaminated with untrustworthy information.”

“Undermined by this crisis of trust, journalists become the targets of the public’s anger during big street protests taking place in many parts of the world,” the report states, “where journalists are also the victims of police violence.”

Reporters Without Borders says the combination of these factors with the added impact of the coronavirus pandemic has created the perfect storm, forming a difficult environment for the press in many countries.

“We are entering a decisive decade for journalism linked to crises that affect its future,” the organization’s secretary-general, Christophe Deloire, said in a statement. “The coronavirus pandemic illustrates the negative factors threatening the right to reliable information, and is itself an exacerbating factor. What will freedom of information, pluralism and reliability look like in 2030? The answer to that question is being determined today.”

Deloire added, “For this decisive decade to not be a disastrous one, people of goodwill, whoever they are, must campaign for journalists to be able to fulfil their role as society’s trusted third parties, which means they must have the capacity to do so.”

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