Press Gazette Media Freedom Health Check: 70% of world's population has little media freedom

best and worst countries press freedom

A Press Gazette analysis of media freedom around the world has uncovered 71 countries – over a third of the places we looked at – where there are critical issues around media freedom. These countries account for 70% of the world’s population.

And working with colleagues on Investment Monitor we have found that an absence of media freedom appears to be little deterrent when it comes to foreign investment from democracies like the US and UK.

This is despite the fact the world’s worst economic shock in modern times, the coronavirus crisis, was exacerbated by media secrecy around the outbreak when it first emerged in Wuhan, China, more than a year ago.



As the publication last month of a US intelligence report concluding that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi has highlighted, press freedom is under threat around the world – and not just in places, such as Saudi Arabia, known for having poor track records on democracy.

The rise of populism in several liberal democracies has put pressure on independent media with the result that journalists now face an increasingly hostile environment in some European countries. Press freedom in the United States was also increasingly undermined during Trump’s tenure.

In light of the growing assault on press freedom, we aggregated 18 indicators to assess the health of the media in 166 countries across the world, bringing together data from NGOs, government bodies and research institutions.

Based on the data we have assigned each country a media freedom health rating based on a traffic-light system. Countries with a good track record on media freedom by international standards are awarded a green; countries where performance on media freedom raises cause for concern are given an amber, whereas countries where there are critical issues when it comes to the ability of the press to operate freely are labelled red.

As well as an overall health rating, we have also given each country a colour based on how well they score in three sub-categories:

Our analysis identified 41 countries where media freedom is relatively good. Of these countries, 27 received a green in each of the three sub-categories.

Eight countries – Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, New Zealand, Germany and Canada – did exceptionally well, receiving a green light for each of the 18 indicators

At the bottom of our table are 71 countries that received a red. They run the gamut from smaller, highly repressive countries such as Eritrea to large economies such as China and Turkey which, while they have made huge strides economically, continue to lag when it comes to their democratic environment.

Of the countries we labelled red overall, ten – Bahrain, Burundi,
China, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkey and Vietnam received a red in each of the three sub-categories. Of these, Turkmenistan, Cuba and Eritrea scored particularly poorly, receiving a red on almost every indicator.

Any ranking or rating of press freedom inevitably sparks much debate.

While a data-based approach that brings together different sources to evaluate the health of the media in a country has advantages, there are some limitations. For example, it is often difficult to collect data on every journalist killed, imprisoned or missing in conflict zones or highly closed regimes. For this reason, some countries may have scored better in our safety category than they might have done had it been possible to ensure that every case of a journalist whose physical safety was threatened could be accounted for in the data.

Similarly, factors like the legislative environment for media might be better evaluated through a consensus of expert opinion rather than a data-based approach that awards points to countries that have some kind of freedom of information law in place without consideration of how well it is implemented in practice. For this reason, we have not considered legislation and regulation as a separate category.

Below you can explore the data that we have in each of the three categories for each country in our health check.

Also included are 27 additional countries for which we felt there was not enough data to give them an overall media freedom health rating. But you can see the data that we do have on them below.


How we developed the Media Freedom Health Check

Our media health freedom health check is based on country-level indicators in three categories: pluralism and independence (12 indicators), safety of journalists (four indicators) and other press freedom indices (two indicators). 

For each country and indicator, we took the raw score given by the organisation that produced the data and converted this into a green, amber or red rating. In some cases, this rating was based on the distribution of scores, while in other cases our rating was based on applying thresholds where numbers above a certain threshold received a particular colour.

These individual indicator ratings were then aggregated into an overall colour rating for each of the three categories based on the same traffic light system. 

The colour of the majority of indicators within a category determined each country’s overall rating in that group of measures. So for example, if a country received amber for the majority of indicators related to safety, that country would be awarded an amber in the safety category. However, to avoid labelling green a country that had even one serious (i.e. red) violation in a category, the presence of just one red indicator meant that a country could not score higher than amber in that category. Similarly, when it came to independence and pluralism, of the 12 indicators, no more than four could be amber to be awarded a green overall to try and account for countries falling in this regard on many fronts.

The overall health of the media in each country was then determined by tallying up how well each country did in the three categories. Each country was given a final assessment of health corresponding to the majority colour it received in the three categories. However, a red in even one category meant that the country was classified red for its final health check rating. 

The table below shows the indicators we used and the data sources. 

We have tried to source up-to-date and comprehensive data that helps paint a picture of the health of the world’s media but if there are other sources of data that you think would help us improve future iterations of the project we would be happy to hear from you. Please email: aisha.majid@ns-mediagroup.com

Image STR/Getty Images.

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