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Media freedom in dire state in record number of countries, report finds

World Press Freedom Index report warns disinformation and AI pose mounting threats to journalism.

Vladimir Putin seen making a speech. Russia, which already plummeted in the rankings last year after the invasion of Ukraine, dropped another nine places. [Source Credit: Kyodo News/Getty Images]

Media freedom is in dire health in a record number of countries, according to the latest annual snapshot, which warns that disinformation, propaganda and artificial intelligence pose mounting threats to journalism.

The World Press Freedom Index revealed a shocking slide, with an unprecedented 31 countries deemed to be in a “very serious situation”, the lowest ranking in the report, up from 21 just two years ago.

Increased aggressiveness from autocratic governments – and some that are considered democratic – coupled with “massive disinformation or propaganda campaigns” has caused the situation to go from bad to worse, according to the list, released by the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

“There is more red on the RSF map this year than ever before, as authoritarian leaders become increasingly bold in their attempts to silence the press,” the RSF secretary general, Christophe Deloire, told the Guardian. “The international community needs to wake up to reality, and act together, decisively and fast, to reverse this dangerous trend.”

Wednesday marks the 30th anniversary of the first World Press Freedom Day, which was created to remind governments of their duty to uphold freedom of expression. However, the environment for journalism today is considered “bad” in seven out of 10 countries, and satisfactory in only three out of 10, according to RSF. The UN says 85% of people live in countries where media freedom has declined in the past five years.

The survey assesses the state of the media in 180 countries and territories, looking at the ability of journalists to publish news in the public interest without interference andwithout threats to their own safety.

It shows rapid technological advances are allowing governments and political actors to distort reality, and fake content is easier to publish than ever before.

“The difference is being blurred between true and false, real and artificial, facts and artifices, jeopardising the right to information,” the report said. “The unprecedented ability to tamper with content is being used to undermine those who embody quality journalism and weaken journalism itself.”

Artificial intelligence was “wreaking further havoc on the media world”, the report said, with AI tools “digesting content and regurgitating it in the form of syntheses that flout the principles of rigour and reliability”.

This is not just written AI content but visual, too. High-definition images that appear to show real people can be generated in seconds.

At the same time, governments are increasingly fighting a propaganda war. Russia, which already plummeted in the rankings last year after the invasion of Ukraine, dropped another nine places, as state media slavishly parrots the Kremlin line while opposition outlets are driven into exile. Last month, Moscow arrested the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, the first US journalist detained in Russia on espionage charges since the end of the cold war.

Meanwhile, three countries: Tajikistan, India and Turkey, dropped from being in a “problematic situation” into the lowest category. India has been in particularly sharp decline, sinking 11 places to 161 after media takeovers by oligarchs close to Narendra Modi. The Indian press used to be seen as fairly progressive, but things changed radically after the Hindu nationalist prime minister took over. This year, the BBC was raided by the country’s financial crimes agency in a move widely condemned as an act of intimidation after a BBC documentary was critical of Modi.

In Turkey, the administration of the hardline president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had stepped up its persecution of journalists in the run-up to elections scheduled for 14 May, RSF said. Turkey jails more journalists than any other democracy.

Some of the 2023 index’s biggest falls were in Africa. Until recently a regional model, Senegal fell 31 places, mainly because of criminal charges brought against two journalists, Pape Alé Niang and Pape Ndiaye. Tunisia fell 27 places as a result of President Kais Saied’s growing authoritarianism.

The Middle East is the world’s most dangerous region for journalists. But the Americas no longer have any country coloured green, meaning “good”, on the press freedom map. The US fell three places to 45th. The Asia Pacific region is dragged down by regimes hostile to reporters, such as Myanmar (173rd) and Afghanistan (152nd).

“We are witnessing worrying trends, but the big question is if these trends are a hiccup or a sign of a world going backwards,” said Guilherme Canela, the global lead on freedom of speech at Unesco. “Physical attacks, digital attacks, the economic situation, and regulatory tightening: we are facing a perfect storm.”

A separate Unesco report released on Wednesday said healthy freedom of expression helped many other fundamental rights to flourish.

Nordic countries have long topped the RSF rankings, and Norway stayed in first place in the press freedom index for the seventh year running. But a non-Nordic country was ranked second: Ireland. The Netherlands returned to the top 10, rising 22 places, following the 2021 murder of the crime reporter Peter R de Vries. The UK was listed at 26.

The western world’s media landscape remains mixed, according to RSF and other press freedom groups, with political and financial pressures. In the first quarter of this year, news media job cuts in the UK and North America ran at a rate of 1,000 jobs a month, a Press Gazette analysis found.

Last week, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists released a report warning against complacency in the EU, which has traditionally been considered among the world’s safest and freest places for journalists.

The group expressed concern about rising populism and illiberal governments such as in Hungary and Poland trampling on the rule of law, including press freedom. The Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and the Slovakian journalist Ján Kuciak had been murdered in connection with their work.


(c) 2023, The Guardian


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