A global decline in press freedom, hastened by repressive laws introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic, has resulted in only 12 countries being deemed as having a "good" environment for the media, a report published Tuesday found.
During the pandemic, nearly 75% of countries blocked the media to some degree, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) found.
The biggest decline came in Malaysia, where a controversial fake news law and other restrictive regulations, coupled with arrests, prosecutions and raids, led to a 18-point decline in RSF's annual press freedom index.
"The RSF index basically indicates that the situation in Malaysia has actually gone from bad to worse," Farah Marshita Abdul Patah, president of National Union of Journalists Peninsular Malaysia (NUJM), told VOA.
Patah said the situation for the media was better before the change in government.
"We had hopes. We were actually able to sit down and talked about establishing our very own media council and also abolishing some draconian laws, but since then things have actually went downhill," Patah said.
Globally, emergency regulations introduced to contain the virus but used instead to target critical reporting, as well as attacks on and arrests of reporters, resulted in marked declines in several countries, RSF found.
"COVID-19 had a chilling effect on press freedom," Anna Nelson, executive director of RSF USA, told VOA.
"We saw authorities downplaying the severity of the virus, issuing mixed messages about it — in some cases, accusing the media of inflating information about COVID-19 and its spread," Nelson said.
The annual index measures indicators of a free press based on 87 questions focused on laws, self-censorship, media pluralism, independence and transparency, along with an assessment of attacks and arrests. Each country is then assigned a rank, with 1 being the most free and 180 the most repressive.
Overall, the pandemic was used as an excuse to restrict access to information, Nelson said.
The restrictions came at a time when access to fact-based journalism and the media's role in fighting disinformation were more important than ever.
"When journalists are under threat, information is too, and that has a profound impact on people's lives," Nelson said. "Trustworthy journalism is really the most effective vaccine that we have against disinformation."
After Malaysia’s 18-point decline from 101 to 119, the head of the country’s press union called on the government to address the problems faced by the country's media.
Patah, of Malaysia's NUJM, said the introduction of emergency laws and other legislation "somehow aggravates the situation in Malaysia" concerning press freedom.
"So now we have all these laws that basically (are) like a trap for us, to always be careful with what we report," Patah told VOA. "For me, that is another form of control by the government and a way of making sure that we practice self-control or else we are all liable for lawsuits or any other legal action."
While journalists don't suffer attacks as they do in some countries, Patah said problems still exist.
"It is actually quite bad for us, where media in Malaysia are only regarded if they're able to carry the agenda of the government," Patah said. Those that don't "are left to fend for (themselves)" she said, adding, "I think that is quite bad for the growth of media in Malaysia."
Malaysia's embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA's request for comment.
Burundi showed the greatest progress, moving 13 places, from 160 to 147. RSF cited the president's call for the media regulator to "settle the differences" with banned media and a presidential pardon of four journalists sentenced to two and a half years in prison.
The journalists, from the independent news outlet Iwacu, were detained in 2019 while covering unrest.
The country still has room for improvement, with RSF noting that the BBC and VOA are still banned from broadcasting and that fear and self-censorship are prevalent.
The report's findings were welcomed by a senior official in Burundi's Communications Ministry. The official, who asked not to be named, said, "It reflects the reality on the ground that the government wants to renormalize relations with the media and give journalists more hope."
The head of the Burundian Journalists' Alliance, Melchior Nicayenzi, also welcomed the progress cited by RSF, including the discussions on lifting the BBC and VOA ban. But Nicayenzi said more progress was needed.
"There are still some challenges to overcome, such as the independence of journalists to deal with all topics without self-censorship, even those sensitive (issues)," Nicayenzi told VOA.
The head of the Burundian exiled media organization L'Union Burundaise des Journalistes (UBJ) was more critical.
“There is no step forward when it comes to press freedom on the ground," Alexandre Niyungeko, president of the UBJ, said, adding it was hard to speak of progress when the journalists who were released had been held unfairly or media outlets allowed to operate had been under sanctions. "Authorities only restored them to their rights, which is simple."
Niyungeko added that over 100 journalists remain in exile and are prevented from working and others were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. "Is that progress?" Niyungeko asked.
Two other African countries recorded significant improvements on the index.
Sierra Leone (75) improved its ranking by 10 points, in part through the repeal of a law that criminalizes press offenses. And an overall decrease in harassment of journalists moved Mali nine spots to come in at 99.
"When we see these types of improvements, it really does offer hope," Nelson said, adding that the rankings should act as an "incentive for other nations to follow suit."
(Etienne Karekezi and Nabila Ganinda contributed to this story.)