The Media Today

The state of global press freedom in 10 numbers

May 7, 2024
Image via Pixabay.

This past Friday, May 3, was World Press Freedom Day. The date marks the anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration, a 1991 statement, named for the capital of Namibia, that asserted the need for “an independent and pluralistic African press.” As the UN puts it, the annual event is “a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom,” but also “a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics,” as well as a chance to “pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.”

Each year, World Press Freedom Day brings with it a welter of statistics on the state of press freedom around the world—no few of them offered up by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) alone, in its influential World Press Freedom Index. (The index ranks 180 countries and territories worldwide from best to worst on press freedom, according to five indicators spanning political, economic, legislative, social, and security considerations.) Journalists, of course, do not live or work by statistics alone—and, as I’ve written before in this newsletter, press-freedom statistics are often contested, sometimes bitterly so, with the picture they paint depending, among other factors, on who we consider to be a journalist, what aspects of their experience we measure, and what aspects are even measurable in the first place.

Still, this picture can be revealing—and on this year’s World Press Freedom Day, it showed a global crisis for the press that, on numerous metrics, is only getting worse. Below are ten figures from this year’s World Press Freedom Day, what they show, and, sometimes, what they don’t. 

At least 1… journalist was killed on World Press Freedom Day. According to Voice of America, Muhammad Siddique Mengal, the president of a local press club, was traveling in a car in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province when an assailant on a motorcycle attached a magnetic bomb to the vehicle, which blew up seconds later. The perpetrator has not been identified, but VOA notes that Balochistan “has lately experienced almost daily attacks mostly claimed by ethnic Baluch insurgents” and that the region is home to other militant groups; Pakistan’s security services have also been accused of attacking critics there. The killing came one day after the Committee to Protect Journalists raised the alarm about a series of recent death threats targeting Hamid Mir, a prominent Pakistani TV journalist (who has been attacked before, as I wrote in 2022). On Friday, Mir described Mengal’s killing as “a message to all independent journalists in Pakistan.”

3… journalists were called out by name in a statement that President Joe Biden issued to mark World Press Freedom Day: Austin Tice, an American journalist who was abducted in Syria in 2012; Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter jailed in Russia since last year; and Alsu Kurmasheva, a journalist with the US-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty who is also in jail in Russia. (She is a dual US-Russian citizen.) Biden has repeatedly spoken the names of Tice and Gershkovich. By my count, this was only the third time that he has publicly mentioned Kurmasheva’s name—and the second time in less than a week, after he said, during remarks at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, that Russian president Vladimir Putin should “release Evan and Alsu immediately.” This recent uptick is notable: as I reported recently, critics have argued that Biden’s administration could be doing more to highlight Kurmasheva’s case. Her husband told me that he would like to hear Biden say her name more often.

10… journalists worldwide are worthy of particularly urgent attention, according to the One Free Press Coalition, a collective of international news organizations that aims to highlight the cases of threatened media workers. The coalition launched its “10 Most Urgent” list in 2019 and updated it monthly; it apparently stopped doing so in 2022, but has just relaunched the list as an annual project pegged to World Press Freedom Day, according to its website. Gershkovich and Kurmasheva lead the latest list, which also draws attention to the plight of jailed reporters in Ethiopia, Hong Kong, Rwanda, and Myanmar. Also on the list are three journalists I’ve written about in this newsletter: José Rubén Zamora and Gustavo Gorriti—veteran muckrakers in Guatemala and Peru, respectively—as well as Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian American reporter for Al Jazeera who was shot and killed while covering an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank in 2022. 

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26… journalists’ deaths “in the line of work” have been condemned by UNESCO since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7 and Israel responded by bombarding Gaza. UNESCO cited this figure in a press release announcing that “Palestinian journalists covering Gaza” would collectively receive this year’s World Press Freedom Prize, an award given in honor of Guillermo Cano, a Colombian journalist who was assassinated outside his newspaper’s offices in 1986. In the same release, UNESCO attributed its Gaza figure to information from partner NGOs and said that it “is reviewing dozens of other cases.” Indeed, its figure is significantly lower than similar data maintained by various other groups; CPJ’s tally of media workers killed in the conflict currently stands at 97, while the International Federation of Journalists’ (IFJ) tally stands at 109 and regional groups peg the total higher still. As I wrote recently, how this figure is calculated has been a source of controversy. As of last month, RSF’s tally stood at 105, but the group had to that point only determined that 22 of those journalists were killed “in the course of their work”—a distinction that a Palestinian press group has blasted as tantamount to whitewashing Israeli crimes.

42… percent is the rate of increase in attacks on journalists and news outlets covering the environment in the past five years (compared with the prior five-year period) according to a new report produced by UNESCO. (The theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day was “journalism and freedom of expression in the context of the current global environmental crisis.”) Earlier this year, UNESCO and the IFJ surveyed 905 environmental journalists in 129 countries, over 70 percent of whom said they had “suffered attacks, threats, or pressure” linked to their work. The report notes that such attacks have taken place in every region of the world, including Europe, where police have arrested reporters covering climate protests in the UK, France, Spain, Poland, and Sweden.

More than 50… percent of the world’s population now lives in countries colored red in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index—the group’s lowest classification, reflecting poor scores on its indicators and a “very serious” situation for press freedom. Only 36 countries out of 180 worldwide are in RSF’s red zone, but this figure is an increase on 31 last year and includes half of the world’s most populous countries—China, Russia, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan—all of which (bar China) held or are holding elections this year. According to RSF, less than 8 percent of the world’s population now lives in places with “good” or “satisfactory” press freedom.

55… is the new ranking of the US on RSF’s index, a 10-place drop from last year and a lower ebb than it recorded at any point when Donald Trump was president. The US has not placed higher than 40th since 2013, and comparing placements on the index from year to year is not an exact science anyway. But the recent drop—which puts the US below various countries with notably hostile recent press-freedom climates, including Slovakia and Poland—nonetheless reflects what RSF describes as “major structural barriers to press freedom,” including economic struggles and declining public trust. Not that the US was the biggest dropper in the index this year: Slovakia, for example, is down 12 places, Niger 19, Argentina 26, and Burkina Faso 28. All four countries have seen recent changes of government, be they the result of elections or coups.

177… is the new ranking on the index of North Korea, that country’s highest placement in at least a decade—but still the world’s fourth worst country for press freedom overall. For five of the past ten years, including the past two, North Korea—which has a notoriously totalitarian approach toward independent journalism (and a more favorable one toward propagandistic cinema, as I wrote last year)—has been rock bottom of the index, with Eritrea occupying that rank most of the rest of the time. Eritrea is back at the bottom this year. But Syria has now also fallen below North Korea—as has Afghanistan, where the repression of journalists has “steadily intensified” since the Taliban seized power in 2021, as RSF puts it. Prior to that, the country had hovered around the 120 mark for the better part of a decade.

310… BBC World Service journalists are now working in exile, according to a figure that the broadcaster released to mark World Press Freedom Day. The figure has nearly doubled since 2020, a reflection of events since then in Afghanistan and Russia, as well as in Ethiopia and Myanmar. The BBC pulled most of its staff out of Afghanistan after the Taliban took power, and moved its Moscow team to neighboring Latvia after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 and simultaneously intensified its crackdown on the press. (Last month, Russian officials labeled a BBC reporter as a “foreign agent,” a designation intended to confer stigma and onerous bureaucratic requirements that is also at issue in Kurmasheva’s case.) Some BBC journalists who were already working from exile, meanwhile, have recently been on the receiving end of an uptick in threats—not least journalists working for BBC Persian, 10 of whom learned recently that they had secretly been convicted in absentia in their home country. Exiled Iranian journalists’ families have also been harassed, as I wrote recently.

2.5 billion… is the amount (in US dollars) that tax authorities in Turkey fined a media company that had been critical of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—ostensibly on fraud charges, but actually, many critics suspected, as a political punishment. This happened in 2009, but on World Press Freedom Day last week, Jan-Werner Müller, a professor at Princeton, returned to the story to highlight the anti-press tactics to which repressive leaders (including Erdoğan, who was prime minister then and is now the president) have resorted in order to maintain at least a veneer of plausible deniability. “As another World Press Freedom Day arrives, news media organizations will dutifully display lists of journalists imprisoned or killed around the world,” Müller wrote in Foreign Policy. “It is important to acknowledge these victims. But it’s also time to recognize that analysts and policymakers need a new framework to understand how a new generation of authoritarian leaders disables critical coverage without putting journalists in jail or physically harming them.”

Other notable stories:

  • The winners of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes were announced yesterday. They included ProPublica, for its coverage of Supreme Court justices’ ties to billionaires, and the New York Times, for its coverage of October 7 and its aftermath, as well as smaller outlets including the Invisible Institute, a nonprofit newsroom in Chicago that won in both the audio and local reporting categories, in partnership with USG Audio and City Bureau, respectively. (Disclosure: I served as a juror this year in the criticism category; congratulations to the winner, Justin Chang, for his writing about film for the LA Times.) The Pulitzer Board also issued a citation honoring “the courageous work of journalists and media workers covering the war in Gaza.” Last week, the board put out a statement praising the work of student journalists covering Gaza-related protests on US campuses. 
  • Last week, Republicans in Congress summoned Katherine Maher, the new CEO of NPR, to testify at a hearing, scheduled for tomorrow, about supposed political bias at the broadcaster. (The request came after a senior NPR editor, who has since resigned, alleged left-wing dogma on the part of his colleagues in an essay for the Free Press; conservative activists subsequently targeted Maher by resurfacing tweets in which she espoused liberal positions before entering the media industry.) According to NPR’s David Folkenflik, Maher has since agreed to testify—but not tomorrow, since the hearing clashes with a long-scheduled meeting of the broadcaster’s board that will be Maher’s first since taking over as CEO. She will offer written testimony in her absence.
  • As we noted in yesterday’s newsletter, unionized staffers at titles owned by Condé Nast were poised to picket last night’s Met Gala in protest of stalled contract negotiations with management—but after we published, the union and bosses came to a “tentative agreement” and the picket was averted, leaving journalists at the gala to focus on fashion (and Rita Ora’s accurate claim that there are no surviving humans from the second century BC). The Condé Nast union said that it has won wage increases, higher starting salaries, “just cause” in firing decisions, expanded family and bereavement leave, and benefits for laid-off colleagues, among other victories.
  • Politico’s Jack Shafer makes the case that American journalism has lost its swagger. “At one time, big city newspaper editors typified by the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee strode their properties like colossuses, barking orders and winning deference from all corners. Today’s newspaper editor comes clothed in the drab and accommodating aura of a bureaucrat, often indistinguishable from the publishers for whom they work,” Shafer argues. These editors then “impose that style on their journalists, many of whom do their work in a defensive crouch instead of the traditional offensive stance.”
  • And for her newsletter, The Media Mix, Claire Atkinson spoke with Elvire Camus—the editor in chief of the English edition of Le Monde, which launched two years ago—to find out how the initiative is going. “We feel that our reporting is good enough to exist globally and we feel that it’s important to add a different perspective than the dominant American perspective on global news, because the global language is English,” Camus said. “And as we all know, two people reporting on the same story don’t write the same story.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.