The UK has fallen down the World Press Freedom Index rankings by two places as “restrictive legislation” and the “use of surveillance” threatens the ability of journalists to do their jobs.
The annual index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (known internationally as Reporters Sans Frontières or RSF), put the UK 40th out of 180 countries for 2017, with Norway top and North Korea bottom.
The UK’s decline is largely the result of three key threats to press freedom:
- The Investigatory Powers Act (dubbed the Snooper’s Charter)
- Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act
- Proposed changes to the Official Secrets Act (dubbed the Espionage Act).
Rebecca Vincent, RSF’s UK bureau director said there had been a “disturbing trend of moves against press freedom in the UK this year”.
As well as highlighting the seizure of Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim’s passport by the Home Office, she warned the Investigatory Powers Act was “the most extreme surveillance legislation in UK history” and “could effectively serve as a death sentence for investigative journalism”.
If enacted, Section 40 would force news publishers not signed up to a state-approved press regulator to pay both sides’ legal costs in a court battle, win or lose.
Under current proposals for changes to the Official Secrets Act, put forward by the Law Commission earlier this year, journalists could be labelled as spies and jailed for up to 14 years “simply for obtaining leaked information”, Vincent warned.
“We remain concerned about the trend of deteriorating press freedom both globally and in the UK,” she said.
“The UK government must act now to reverse this worrying trend and ensure that it is respecting and protecting press freedom in line with the UK’s international commitments.”
Speaking at the launch of the 2017 index today, media commentator Roy Greenslade said: “We all think we live here in Britain in a relatively free society where there’ s guaranteed press freedom, but it isn’t so.
“Despite our proud history during which people have put their lives and liberty on the line in order to secure freedom of expression, freedom of the press is still a fragile flower here in Britain and it requires constant protection in order to flourish.”
Greenslade added that journalists “struggle on a daily basis to weed out information in the public interest” and are often met with a “stone wall” response from PRs and other information gatekeepers.
“There should be a public interest defence to every law,” he said. “That should be a right that we in Britain uphold.”
The UK’s drop in ranking fits with a broader trend in this year’s index of press freedom decline among leading democracies.
The United States has fallen two places to 43rd, with Donald Trump’s high profile media bashing said to have been part of a “highly toxic anti-media discourse that drove the world into a new era of post-truth, disinformation and fake news”, according to the RSF.
New Zealand has fallen by eight places to 13th, while France has risen six places to 39th as it recovers from the Charlie Hebdo massacre in which 12 people were killed at the magazine’s offices in Paris.
Although on the rise, the RSF warns France is also “falling into the trap of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘post-truths’ and succumbing to a poisonous and violent environment in which it has become normal to hiss and jeer at journalists at meetings, or even throw them out” as it elects a new leader.
Turkey, which has experienced an intense media crackdown since the failed coup on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last July including jailing 150 journalists, fell four places to 155th place.
Syria sits at 177th place on the index. Since the conflict in the country began, 211 journalists have been killed – making it the most deadly country for reporters.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia is at 148th place.
Vincent said: “Media freedom has never been so threatened and there’s a range of tactics. It’s everything from violence against journalists to imprisoning journalists, restrictive legislation that prevents journalists from being able to effectively do their jobs.
“We’re seeing an increase in the use of surveillance and disrespect for the confidentiality of sources.”
Channel 4 News anchor Jon Snow, who serves as a member of RSF’s UK advisory board, said the index was “really grim reading, particularly if you are Turkish”, adding of the UK: “We aren’t sitting in an easy place”.
RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said: “The rate at which democracies are approaching the tipping point is alarming for all those who understand that, if media freedom is not secure, then none of the other freedoms can be guaranteed.”
Picture: RSF. The colour categories are assigned as follows: good (white), fairly good (yellow), problematic (orange), bad (red) and very bad (black).