Over the past twelve months, hostility towards journalists has often degenerated into violence, contributed to an increase in fear globally, with the number of countries categorised as 'safe' continuing to decline, the global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said on Thursday in their 2019 World Press Freedom report.
The report, which measures media freedom in 180 countries around the world, warned of an "intense climate of fear" which the group says has led to increasingly frequent acts of violence against reporters.
“If the political debate slides surreptitiously or openly towards a civil war-style atmosphere, in which journalists are treated as scapegoats, then democracy is in great danger,” RSF Secretary-General, Christophe Deloire, said. “Halting this cycle of fear and intimidation is a matter of the utmost urgency for all people of good will who value the freedoms acquired in the course of history.”
The index calculated by RSF scores countries in various categories, including pluralism, media independence, legislation, and the quality of media infrastructure. Each country is then assigned a cumulative score, with the overall ranking published every year in April.
In the 2019 Index, Norway placed 1st for the third year in a row, followed by Finland, Sweden, Netherlands, and Demark which closed the top five. Overall, European countries dominated the top end of the list, with only six countries from outside Europe appearing in the top 20 (New Zealand in 7th, Jamaica in 8th, Costa Rica in 10th, Canada in 18th, Uruguay in 19th, and Suriname in 20th place).
Meanwhile, many authoritarian regimes have fallen in the Index in 2019. They include Venezuela (148th) and Russia (149th). At the bottom of the Index, both Vietnam (176th) and China (177th) have fallen by one place, Eritrea (up one place at 178th) is third from last, despite making peace with its neighbour Ethiopia, and Turkmenistan (down two places, now 180th) is now rock bottom, replacing North Korea, which moved up one place to 179th.
'HRT is clearly under political pressure'
Croatia has moved up to 64th place, scoring five spots higher than in 2018. However, RSF warned that in spite of the improved ranking this year, investigative journalists still have to deal with harassment. At the same time, Croatian defamation laws allow media outlets to pay fines for publishing 'humiliating' content.
"Croatian journalists who investigate corruption, organised crime or war crimes are often subjected to harassment campaigns. Defamation is criminalised and insulting 'the Republic, its emblem, its national hymn or flag' is punishable by up to three years in prison. Worse still, 'humiliating' media content has been criminalised since 2013," the report said.
They added that political influence at the state broadcaster HRT continues to be an issue. HRT itself is known for treating its critics with hostility, which recently included legal action against the nation's main journalists' association HND, its own reporters, and other media outlets.
A protest organised by the HND in March warned of more than 30 lawsuits filed by HRT against other media outlets who published pieces critical of HRT, as well as the wider problem of more than 1,000 defamation lawsuits currently in Croatia's courts.
"Government meddling in the public TV broadcaster HRT continues to be a real problem, with the effect of limiting media independence. HRT is clearly under political pressure. Interest groups try to influence its editorial policies and interfere in its internal operations. The HRT management is even suing employees who have complained about these problems, and has gone so far as to bring a complaint against the Association of Croatian Journalists," the report added.
Hostile environments for journalists in Bosnia and Serbia
In the 2019 report, Bosnia and Herzegovina was ranked 63rd, dropping one place from 2018, while Serbia was ranked 90th, after a 14-place drop from 2018.
RSF described Bosnia's media landscape as marked by verbal attacks and nationalist rhetoric, and mentioned that the most recent example of media obstruction was in the coverage of protests in the city of Banja Luka related to the unexplained death of a young man, David Dragicevic.
"The polarised political climate, marked by constant verbal attacks and nationalist rhetoric, has created a hostile environment for press freedom. Editorial policies reflecting ethnic divisions and hate speech are ever more evident. Journalists are attacked for their ethnic origins as well as what they write. Defamation suits by politicians often serve to intimidate journalists and deter them from pursuing their work," RSF said in their comment on Bosnia.
RSF said that in Serbia, practicing journalism is "neither safe nor supported by state" in the five years since President Aleksandar Vucic came to power.
"Many attempts on journalists’ integrity have not been investigated, solved, or punished, and the aggressive smear campaigns that pro-government media orchestrate against investigative reporters are in full swing... Some courageous journalists continue to cover dangerous subjects such as crime and corruption, but because of media ownership concentration, their stories usually have limited reach. Collusion between politicians and media, widespread government-tolerated fake news, and a lack of pluralism in the print and broadcast media are also all sources of a big concern," Reporters Without Borders said.
As for other countries in the region, Slovenia was ranked 34th, Hungary 87th, Macedonia 95th, and Montenegro 104th.