Press freedom is under attack, and not just recently. It has been on a steady decline for the last decade, according to the World Press Freedom Index, which ranks 180 countries every year. In 2022, only eight countries—Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Portugal and Costa Rica– earned the top rating in green. Meanwhile, 27 countries were in the dark red “Very Serious” category, almost double the number from 2012. Among the worst offenders: North Korea, Iran, Myanmar, China, Vietnam, Cuba and Iraq.
UNESCO and the V-Dem Institute quantified the impact of this downturn in press freedom and found that 85 percent of humanity now lives in countries where freedom of expression has decreased.
The consequences of this trend for journalists have been deadly, with 67 journalists killed last year, up by 50 percent compared with 2021, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Ukraine topped the list with at least 15 journalists killed while reporting on the Russian invasion, but Mexico again continues to be extremely dangerous, with 13 journalists murdered—the most ever in a single year. “These figures point to a precipitous decline in press freedom, with the highest number of journalist killings since 2018,” CPJ President Jodie Ginsberg said.
The forces driving this violence and erosion of press freedom around the world are many and complex, but three stand out:
- Government crackdowns
- A broken economic model
- A decline in public trust and rise in political polarization
One of the most disturbing trends over the last decade is the sharp rise in government crackdowns on the press. Authoritarian leaders increasingly use their state powers to censor journalists and scale back press freedom. National security laws and so-called fake news laws have been weaponized against the press, resulting in the imprisonment of a record 363 journalists last year. Iran is the worst offender, with 62 journalists detained since December for reporting on the death of a young woman who allegedly violated the country’s hijab law, which requires women to cover their hair. China is close behind with at least 43 journalists in prison, many from Hong Kong, where a sweeping national security law rolled out during the pandemic has shut down nearly all independent news outlets. In Russia, a new law makes fact-based reporting about the invasion of Ukraine–even the use of the word war—a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Many independent journalists concluded they could not work under those conditions, and at least 150 have gone into exile.
Economic pressures have also contributed to the global downturn in press freedom. The digital age ushered in the decline of traditional media by siphoning off ad revenues that supported local journalism and investigative reporting. Tech companies Meta and Google are now attracting about half of all ad spending, leaving many news outlets in fierce competition for resources to continue their independent reporting.
Some governments are also using their financial leverage to influence news outlets and limit press freedom. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has been dubbed a “press freedom predator,” has effectively taken control of 80 percent of the country’s news industry by channeling state advertising funds to news organizations that are friendly to his government and cutting off funding to independent media outlets. Thanks to this arrangement, many Hungarian newspapers and websites went bankrupt or were taken over by pro-government owners who were promised state advertising if they supported Orban.
“The Hungarian media is beginning to resemble state media under Communism because of the level of control and consolidation,” said Zselyke Csaky of Freedom House, which rates Hungary’s news media as only “partly free.” Leaders in Russia and Turkey have resorted to similar tactics, and most of their news outlets are also owned by the government or pro-government media barons.
The propaganda published on these pro-government news sites, along with the vast amount of misinformation online, undermines public trust in journalism and ultimately, press freedom. Reporters Without Borders calls this opinion-driven and partisan content the “Fox News-isation” of media and warns that it is stoking social and political polarization. When people are polarized, they seek information that confirms their preexisting beliefs and discount news that does not fit their worldview. These echo chambers make it even harder for journalists to report the truth and hold power accountable. It also makes the public less likely to recognize the value of a free press.
The stakes could not be higher. If this decline in press freedom continues, it will be challenging for even the most dedicated and intrepid journalists to do their work well and increasingly difficult for the public—we, the people—to be informed and engaged citizens of the world.