Incessant attacks on the media by populist politicians are posing a threat to major democracies, two international watchdogs said on Wednesday.
In their annual reports on the state of press freedom around the world, Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House harshly criticized Western populist leaders for discrediting the media, berating journalists, and threatening to impose restrictions.
“As recently as five years ago, global pressure on the media did not appear to affect the United States or the established democracies of Europe in any significant way,” Freedom House said in its report, “State of Global Press Freedom, 2017-2018.” “Today, populist leaders constitute a major threat to free expression in these open societies.”
Reporters Without Borders offered a strikingly similar assessment, warning that “more and more, democratically-elected leaders no longer see the media as part of democracy’s essential underpinning, but as an adversary to which they openly display their aversion.”
President Donald Trump came in for harsh criticism from both organizations. Reporters without Borders called him “a media bashing enthusiast,” while Freedom House warned that Trump’s characterization of the media as “the enemy of the American people” and his disparagement of journalists and media organizations have “‘undermined public trust in fact based journalism.”
The White House could not be immediately reached to respond to the criticism.
Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Index evaluates press freedom in 180 countries on a scale of 1 to 180, with 1 being the freest and 180 the least free.
In this year’s index, Norway stole the top spot from Finland while North Korea remained at the bottom at No. 180.
The U.S. ranked 45th , down two places, continuing a trend that started under the administration of former President Barack Obama but accelerated under Trump.The ranking puts the United States in the same camp as Belize, Italy, Romania, and South Korea.
Europe, which historically has had the freest press in the world and had eight of the freest press sectors in the world, notched the largest decline in its regional indicator.
In France, a journalist was hustled out of a press conference last May when he asked a politician about involvement in a scandal.
In Poland, regulators fined a leading TV station for “promoting illegal activities” through its coverage of antigovernment protests, Freedom House said.
And in Hungary, the free press has all but vanished as businessmen associated with the ruling party have “acquired most of the last bastions of independent media,” according to Freedom House.
“That’s what we mean when we talk about hatred of journalists coming from political leaders in non authoritarian regimes which is really concerning,” said Margaux Ewen, North America director for Reporters Without Borders.
The “Trump Effect” rippled into countries such as Turkey, which remains the world’s biggest jailer of journalists and the Philippines where President Rodrigo Duterte has openly threatened journalists.
In Cambodia, which fell ten places in the RSF index, the government has used Trump’s criticism to justify a major crackdown on independent media.
Sarah Repucci of Freedom House said the comparison is misleading. While the Cambodian press is highly restricted, she said, the U.S. media has vigorously pushed back against Trump’s attacks.
While every region of the world saw declines in press freedom, there were some bright spots in parts of Africa where several authoritarian leaders have left office.
Among them: Gambia, where a new president has promised a less restrictive press law and the inclusion of freedom of expression in the country’s constitution, jumped 21 places, Africa’s biggest leap forward, according to Reporters Without Borders.