The 132 nations classified as having “very bad,” “bad” or “problematic” environments for press freedom are identified on the World Press Freedom map in black, red or orange respectively.
The 2021 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index has shown the media to be functioning adequately in only 27 per cent of the 180 countries evaluated over the past year.
Released in the lead-up to World Press Freedom Day, on May 3, the Index found journalism - “arguably the best vaccine against the virus of disinformation” – to be “totally blocked or seriously impeded” in 73 countries in 2021 and “constrained” in 59 others.
According to RSF, this year’s Index data in general reflected a dramatic deterioration in access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage.
In particular, the coronavirus pandemic was in many places used as grounds to block journalists accessing information sources and stop them reporting in the field.
In first place on the Index (although its journalists reported a lack of access to government information about the coronavirus) was Norway, followed by Finland, Sweden and Denmark.
Meanwhile, in Eritrea, which sits at the bottom of the list, the media are subject to the whim of “press freedom predator” President Issayas Afeworki, who has been found guilty of crimes against humanity, and in North Korea (ranked 179th) “a citizen can still end up in a concentration camp just for looking at the website of a media outlet based abroad”.
In the Asia Pacific region, authoritarian regimes used Covid-19 to perfect their methods of information control, RSF said, while the “dictatorial democracies” used it as a pretext for imposing repressive legislation combining propaganda and suppression of dissent.
The “censorship virus”, on which China was “the world’s undisputed specialist”, spread and took hold beyond China (rated 177th), in particular in Hong Kong (80th), where Beijing can now interfere directly under the national security law it imposed in June 2020.
In 2020 Thailand (137th), the Philippines (138th), Indonesia (113th) and Cambodia (144th) all adopted “extremely draconian laws or decrees” criminalising any criticism of government actions and, in some cases, making the publication or broadcasting of “false” information punishable with several years in prison.
In Malaysia, the new coalition government enacted an “anti-fake news” decree, allowing it to impose its own version of the truth, causing the country to fall furthest in press freedom rankings in 2021 – down 18 positions to 119th.
In Myanmar, press freedom had already been seriously compromised by the civilian government’s blocking of news websites as “fake news”; however, following the February 2021 military coup the environment had “suddenly gone back 10 years”, with a resumption of “the grim practices of the junta that ruled until February 2011”, including media closures, mass arrests of journalists and censorship”.
RSF said the behaviour of the region’s few real democracies had shown that journalistic freedom was “the best antidote to disinformation”.
Australia, categorised as having a “fairly good” media environment, came in 25th in the Index; however, press freedom was found to be “fragile” here, with constitutional law providing no guarantees, and “national security” raids, defamation and terrorism laws and the concentration of media ownership all identified as threats to public interest investigative journalism.
Around the world six journalists and four media assistants have been killed in 2021, and currently 303 journalists, 100 citizen journalists and 12 media assistants are imprisoned.