The environment for journalism is "bad" in seven out of ten countries, according to the 2023 World Press Freedom Index published annually by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on World Press Freedom Day (3 May).
In the majority of 180 countries, the conditions for press freedom are poor, defined as "problematic" (31 per cent), "difficult" (23 per cent) or "very serious" (17 per cent). Just eight countries, all in Europe, have "good" press freedom.
The remaining quarter (24 per cent) have a "satisfactory" situation, a small (two percentage point) increase from 2022. That includes the UK, down two places to 26th because of the misuse of the court system to silence investigative reporting and the government's unfulfilled promises to tackle it. The US is also down three places to 45th, not least because of the murders of journalists Jeff German (September 2022) and Dyland Lyons (February 2023).
The "very serious" category is the greatest concern as three more countries - Turkey, India and Tajikistan - have joined the list since 2022. The percentage of countries in this category has also never been higher since RSF started its Index in 2013.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) continues to be the most dangerous region for journalists, with no countries showing positive press freedom. Asia-Pacific is home to the three lowest-ranking countries: Vietnam (178th), China (179th) and North Korea (180th).
Russia's war crimes in Ukraine since February 2022 have seen the country slump nine places to 164th. During this time, President Putin has decimated independent media in the country, blocked foreign media and media regulators, and only enabled Kremlin mouthpiece media to operate under strict self-censorship. Russia has one of the worst scores for security because 22 journalists and two media workers are currently detained.
Read more: RSF round-up report 2022 - detentions and killings of journalists on the rise
Radical changes linked to political, societal and technological upheaval
Some 15 per cent of countries have moved more than 20 places this year, showing just how rapidly situations can change. Brazil is up 18 places, in part due to the end of Bolsanaro's administration. Senegal however is down 31 places amid cases of criminal charges lodged against journalists.
"Authoritarian leaders have been emboldened by the actions of others and are increasingly adept at using a toolkit of repression that includes spreading fake content and propaganda. Unprecedented volatility in the rankings reveals how quickly the environment for journalists can change – both for better and for worse," says Fiona O'Brien, UK Bureau Director, RSF in an email to Journalism.co.uk.
"The rise of Eastern European countries, in particular, has been accompanied by a realisation that independent reporting can serve as a rampart against Kremlin propaganda."
Two thirds of countries see political actors reach for disinformation campaigns to undermine journalists' work. AI programmes like Midjourney pose serious challenges to separating real from fake, thus undermining journalism.
Social media has only added fuel to the flames in the last 12 months, notably on Twitter under Elon Musk's ownership. His changes have allowed users to pay for visibility and credibility in the form of blue ticks, "showing that platforms are quicksand for journalism". In other words, truthful reporting sinks to the bottom quickly.
"Misused, AI provides a highly effective way of generating and spreading disinformation, and the more sophisticated it gets, the harder it becomes to identify," continues O'Brien.
"The use of AI to decide what audiences see – without any transparency - is also deeply worrying, prioritising as it does high earnings over journalistic rigour. It is becoming harder and harder for citizens to access quality journalism, while disinformation is flowing ever more freely."
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