The UK remains 40 out of 180 countries on the 2018 World Press Freedom Index amid a “climate of hostility towards the media”.
It was named one of the worst countries for press freedom in western Europe, while deaths in Europe “deteriorated” the safe environment for journalists.
The annual index, compiled by Reporters without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières), again sees Norway and Sweden remain in first and second place respectively, with North Korea last under Kim Jong-un (pictured).
The UK fell two places last year amid threats to press freedom from the Snooper’s Charter, Espionage Act and Section 40. It has dropped 18 places since the index began in 2002, when it was ranked 22nd.
Speaking at an event to launch the 2018 index, former BBC News director James Harding said the report was “extremely alarming”, while Guardian editor Katharine Viner said the UK’s drop in the past 16 years was “quite shocking”.
Threats this year include proposed amendments to the Data Protection Bill, currently passing through Parliament, that would leave newspapers paying both sides’ legal costs in data protection cases, win or lose.
Despite a Government pledge to repeal Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which would also force publishers to cover all legal costs in libel and copyright battles, it remains hanging over the heads of editors.
RSF’s UK bureau director, Rebecca Vincent, said the UK’s position between Trinidad and Tobago in 39th place and Burkina Faso in 41st place was “frankly embarrassing” and a “questionable neighbourhood” to be in.
She said: “Maintaining our ranking is nothing to be proud of and puts us in the embarrassing position of having one of the worst records on press freedom in Western Europe.
“This is unacceptable for a country that plays an important international standard-setting role when it comes to human rights and fundamental freedoms.
“We must examine the longer-term trend of worrying moves to restrict press freedom, and hold the UK government to account.”
Viner said: “It’s clear that everywhere the situation around press freedom is getting worse, both in terms of rhetoric and violence.”
In the UK, she added, journalists face “suppression and restriction from both governments and commercial interests”.
Viner also raised concerns over the Data Protection Bill, saying it would “obviously be devastating to news organisations working in the public interest”.
“The need to campaign for press freedom is necessary here in Britain just as it is needed in so many other countries,” she added.
Harding said journalists in Europe need to “stand up for” the free press together, as “state news” has become more of a problem than “fake news”.
“We have seen a change in accepted behaviour from politicians in the way they intimidate the press and the way the state encroaches on the freedom of the media,” he said.
“It isn’t something that’s happening that far away – it’s within the family of nations that care so deeply in the freedom of the press.”
RSF raised concerns over the implementation of the Investigatory Powers Act, dubbed the Snooper’s Charter, which it said has “insufficient protection mechanisms” for whistleblowers, journalists, and their sources.
Meanwhile both the Conservative and Labour parties restricted journalists’ access to campaign events ahead of June’s general election, and online threats sent to BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg resulted in her being assigned bodyguards for the Labour party conference in September.
In December, the offshore firm at the heart of the Paradise Papers story, Appleby, launched breach of confidence proceedings against the Guardian and the BBC – the only two publishers to face legal action over the investigation despite it involving 96 media organisations in 67 countries.
RSF described a “continued heavy-handed approach towards the press – often in the name of national security – and a climate of hostility towards the media” as it revealed the updated index today.
A spokesperson for the News Media Association, which represents national, regional and local publishers, said the fact the UK was “languishing” in 40th place was disappointing but not surprising.
“We have seen repeated attempts by the House of Lords to hijack legislation, such as the current Data Protection Bill, to enforce state-backed press regulation which would have a chilling effect on investigative journalism,” the spokesperson said.
“This is a grave threat to press freedom and could lead to the closure of newspapers. We call on all politicians to protect media freedom and safeguard a vibrant press in the UK.”
RSF said there has been an overall decline in press freedom in democracies around the world this year.
Malta fell 18 places to 65th in the index after the assassination of journalist and blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia which, the group said, had “lifted the veil on the judicial harassment and intimidation to which journalists are routinely subjected in the island state”.
Slovakia fell ten places to 27th place, following the murder of a 27-year-old investigative reporter, Jan Kuciak, who had been investigating corruption and the mafia.
RSF said the “traditionally safe” environment for journalists in Europe had begun to “deteriorate”, also citing verbal attacks against the media from international politicians on the continent and further afield.
The US under President Donald Trump – who has called reporters “enemies of the people” – has fallen two places in the index to 45th.
RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said: “The unleashing of hatred towards journalists is one of the worst threats to democracies.
“Political leaders who fuel loathing for reporters bear heavy responsibility because they undermine the concept of public debate based on facts instead of propaganda.
“To dispute the legitimacy of journalism today is to play with extremely dangerous political fire.”
Picture: Reporters Without Borders