Britain continues to cascade down press freedom index

22nd April 2020 / United Kingdom
Britain continues to cascade down press freedom index

By TruePublica: The 2020 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), shows that the coming decade will be decisive for the future of journalism, with the Covid-19 pandemic highlighting and amplifying the many crises that threaten the right to freely reported, independent, diverse and reliable information.

This 2020 edition of the Index, which evaluates the situation for journalists each year in 180 countries and territories, suggests that the next ten years will be pivotal for press freedom because of converging crises affecting the future of journalism: a geopolitical crisis (due to the aggressiveness of authoritarian regimes); a technological crisis (due to a lack of democratic guarantees); a democratic crisis (due to polarisation and repressive policies); a crisis of trust (due to suspicion and even hatred of the media); and an economic crisis (impoverishing quality journalism).

In the top ten places, Norway it first, followed by Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Switzerland, New Zealand and Portugal. Fourteen European countries sit inside the top 20.

The UK is down three places to number 35 – flanked by Trinidad, Andora and Burkino Fasa three places below and countries with better press freedom such as Ghana (30th), Gabo Verde (25th) and Surinam (20th). Britain is the worst-ranked nation for press freedom in Western Europe. Ten years ago Namibia was in 35th position and Britain was in 21st place.

The United States is ranked 45th flanked by Taiwan and Papua New Guinea.

The RSF country report on the UK is not flattering for a so-called democracy.  As the UK champions global media freedom, domestic trends remain a cause for concern.

Despite the UK co-hosting a Global Conference for Media Freedom and assuming the role of co-chair of the new Media Freedom Coalition, the UK’s domestic press freedom record remained a cause for concern throughout 2019. The killing of journalist Lyra McKee whilst observing rioting in Derry in April, and continued threats to journalists covering paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, underscored the need for urgent attention to the safety of journalists; however, there was no apparent progress towards the establishment of a National Committee for the Safety of Journalists and a National Action Plan on Safety of Journalists as announced by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in July. 

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange received a disproportionate prison sentence of 50 weeks for breaking bail. The Home Secretary gave the green light to the court to consider the US’ extradition request, and Assange remained in custody at the high-security Belmarsh Prison despite widespread international concern for his health and treatment, including by the UN Special Rapporteur for Torture.

Counter-terrorism and crime legislation adopted during the year contained worrying provisions that could restrict reporting and put journalists’ data at risk. The London Metropolitan Police pursued the publication of leaked information from diplomatic cables as a “criminal matter.” Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (called SLAPPs) were used as a means to attempt to silence public interest reporting, such as in defamation cases brought by Arron Banks against journalist Carole Cadwalladr. During the general election campaign, the Conservative Party threatened to review the BBC’s licence fee and Channel 4’s public service broadcasting licence if the party returned to government.

It is true to say that as Britain slides down the press freedom rankings, it does so in an environment of continued hostility towards democracy. For a few years now, the UK has proven to be one of the worst environments for press freedom in western Europe and it certainly has the most right-wing media organisations in Europe.

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In recent years, the government has threatened news outlets, sued them, locked up journalists and created new laws to treat whistleblowers and editors who publish stories unfavourable to the state as foreign spies. Britain’s ranking remains unacceptable for a country that brags about its supposed important international standard-setting role when it comes to human rights and fundamental freedoms. In the last ten years, Britain has slipped down the index from 21st place to 35th as the Conservative party continues its assault on free speech.

For all the discussion in recent years of fake news, there is considerable evidence of a more pervasive problem of how state news, misinformation and propaganda is disseminated and how it is controlled. Leaving aside the huge social media campaigns with the intent to mislead in what is termed the era of ‘post-truth-politics,’ the government is now invading the media with scripted news that it expects the mainstream media to be subservient to its or is then excluded for non-compliance.

With Boris Johnson at the wheel, a man who has abused the tools of democracy since gaining power, you can expect a continued assault on press freedom.

It is also true to say that the countries with the highest and lowest rankings in the press freedom index – are an index of freedom at the one end and authoritarian dictatorships at the other – and Britain is definitively heading in the wrong direction.


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