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Free Press Faces Threats as Risks of Jail, Abuse, Violence Rise

Billions of people worldwide have limited to no access to journalism produced without political interference, and journalists in those regions often face threats to their lives while they try to report. According to the 2022 edition of the World Press Freedom Index, 28 countries are now rated “very bad” places for journalism, and the index warned that autocracies are cracking down on independent media.

Produced by Reporters Without Borders, the list surveys the state of the media across 180 countries and territories. The group blames globalized and unregulated online information spaces that encourage fake news and propaganda, The Guardian reported. The index notes that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reflects this issue, “as the physical conflict was preceded by a propaganda war.”

The index is compiled based on surveys from journalists worldwide and an assessment of press freedom violations and abuses against journalists and media.

The overall top-scored countries were Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, while Iran, Eritrea, and North Korea were ranked as the worst countries for press freedom. The United States was ranked 42, at the same general level as Burkina Faso and South Korea. The report also broke down trends along continental lines for more analysis.

In Africa, a recent “wave of draconian laws criminalising online journalism has dealt a new blow to the right to information. At the same time, the spread of rumours, propaganda, and disinformation has contributed to the undermining of journalism and access to quality information,” the index said. While the repression of dissident journalists persists in many countries, other nations like Angola, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia are moving up in the charts.

Latin American journalists face an increasingly toxic environment as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a rise in censorship, caused economic hardship for the press, and led to difficulties in accessing information from governments. Anti-media rhetoric in Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and El Salvador drove further distrust of the press, as well as attacks and harassment against journalists—especially women.

In Asia, the junta coup in Myanmar led to harsh repression and detention of journalists, dropping the country’s ranking to 176, near the lower end of the World Press Freedom Index. Hong Kong had the steepest drop in rankings this year—declining 68 places in the 2022 index as China’s strict rules about national security and criticism take effect.

Imprisonment of journalists in North Africa is becoming routine, the index said, and the free press has all but disappeared in Libya and Sudan.

In the Middle East, multiple journalists were killed while working or were deliberately murdered in 2021. Online attacks and death threats against journalists in Lebanon are on the rise, and inaction from the government has forced many journalists to flee.

Europe and Central Asia are caught between two extremes—either the press-friendly Scandinavian countries or the increasingly hostile measures that protesters have taken against journalists. In Germany, France, Italy, and The Netherlands, journalists were physically attacked in 2021, and two journalists were murdered.  

In Russia, “the government has taken complete control of news and information by establishing extensive wartime censorship, blocking the media, and pursuing non-compliant journalists, forcing many of them into exile,” the index reported. Journalists are often punished by the state and protesters for their actions and work.

Dmitry Muratov, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning editor of independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was attacked on a train in Russia in April 2022 by an assailant who doused him in red paint in protest of the paper’s coverage of the war in Ukraine. The Novaya Gazeta had suspended operations in late March 2022 and removed much of its war reporting from its website after Russia passed a law threatening jail terms of up to 15 years for publishing information that the Kremlin deems fake, The Guardian reported. In 2021, the newspaper announced that its offices in Moscow had been targeted in a chemical attack.

The index also measures journalists’ safety in different countries—Lichtenstein, Ireland, and Costa Rica are the safest nations for journalists and media workers, while Eritrea, Mexico, and Myanmar are the least safe.

In 2021, 55 journalists and media professionals were killed. While this marks one of the lowest tallies in a decade, the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) noted that journalists are facing high rates of imprisonment, physical attack, intimidation, and harassment, including when reporting on protests.

Women journalists continue to be at particular risk, especially as they are subjected to “a shocking prevalence of harassment online,” UNESCO said. Nearly three-quarters of female media professionals reported experiencing some sort of online violence linked to their work. Women journalists rarely face attacks just for their work, however; they are disadvantaged by racism, homophobia, bigotry, orchestrated disinformation campaigns, and a lack of action from social media platforms and news organizations in response, according to UNESCO report The Chilling: Global trends in violence against women journalists.

Most press deaths in 2021 occurred in just two regions—Asia-Pacific (23 killings) and Latin American and the Caribbean (14 killings). According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 22 media professionals were killed in retaliation for their reporting. Four more were killed when reporting from conflict zones, and two were killed when covering protests or street clashes that turned deadly. (CPJ offers a checklist for editorial teams to prepare staff to safely cover potentially risky protests or clashes.)

“Political groups, such as anti-government parties or combatants, were the most frequently suspected killers of journalists in 2021, while politics was the most dangerous beat,” CPJ reported.

Digital safety for journalists was the primary theme of UNESCO’s global conference for World Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2022.

“The growing sophistication and undetectability of mal- and spyware and their increasing use against journalists and human rights defenders by state and non-state actors, endanger free and independent journalism,” according to UNESCO. “Surveillance can expose information gathered by journalists including from whistle-blowers, and violates the principle of source protection, which is universally considered a prerequisite for freedom of the media and is enshrined in UN Resolutions. Surveillance may also harm the safety of journalists by disclosing sensitive private information which could be used for arbitrary judicial harassment or attack.”

Between 2011 and 2020, CPJ has recorded dozens of incidents of journalists being targeted by spyware. According to a May 2019 report from the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, “surveillance of individuals—often journalists, activists, opposition figures, critics, and others exercising their right to freedom of expression—has been shown to lead to arbitrary detention, sometimes to torture, and possibly to extrajudicial killings.”