May 3rd marked the anniversary of the first World Press Freedom Day, initiated by the UN General Assembly 30 years ago.
From the United Nations:
“May 3 acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom. It is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics.”
The theme for World Press Freedom Day 2023 is freedom of the press as freedom of expression, and a driver for all other human rights. This basic human right is enshrined under Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
And while a reminder of the importance of this right is clearly needed, it seems unlikely to reach those who need it most. Media freedom is under attack around the world. Disinformation and propaganda campaigns, AI, and the persecution of journalists and bloggers by autocratic governments is reflected in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders this week. It looks very bad.
In the Index’s ranking of 180 countries and territories, 31 countries are now in a “very serious situation,” an increase from 21 just two years ago. That means press freedom is bad in seven out of ten countries around the world.
The low lights:
- No country in the Americas now offers journalists an unequivocally good working environment. The US has fallen to #45 on the list of 180.
- Russia has fallen another nine places since its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, having stepped up its propaganda machine and cracked down hard on independent media.
- The Middle East is considered the world’s most dangerous region for journalists to work. More than half of Middle Eastern countries are classified as “very bad.” Syria (ranked #175) is one of the most dangerous, and the place where the most journalists are held hostage. Turkey (ranked 165th) has fallen 16 places, as President Erdogan tries to stifle free press coverage prior to the country’s May 14th election. Saudi Arabia is ranked #170, near the bottom of the Index after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
- And Central Asia is not doing well. Kyrgyzstan has fallen 50 places, and the situation in Tajikstan has gone from “problematic” to “very bad.”
- Among the most shocking is India, a country previously spoken of as the world’s largest democracy. With press freedom, the hallmark of a strong democracy, India is down 11 places, now at #161. Wealthy media-owners close to Prime Minister Modi have all but destroyed pluralism.
- In Latin America, the political instability in Perù has seen that country fall 33 places to #110. And the severe deterioration in Haiti’s security environment saw it fall 29 places to #99.
- In Africa there have been some of the largest drops. Senegal fell 31 spots to #104, while Tunisia fell 27 to #121.
There’s also the disturbing growth in disinformation campaigns, made easier and faster by the development of artificial intelligence. In two-thirds of the 180 countries included in the 2023 Index, politicians were involved in disinformation or propaganda campaigns. The new AI is not only threatening the jobs of thousands of journalists, but making it far more difficult to separate fact from disinformation.