UK drops in World Press Freedom Index following surveillance and anti-espionage threats

And Trump's 'fake news' bleating harms US tradition of defending free press

The UK has dropped two places on the World Press Freedom Index following the passing of the Investigatory Powers Act and threats to pursue journalists reporting on national security.

The World Press Freedom Index for 2017 was published today by Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières), the Paris-based international non-profit NGO to promote and defend the freedom of the press, which has consultant status at the United Nations.

Of 180 countries, the UK — the land of John Milton, who wrote Areopagitica* — has dropped to 40th, being pipped by France, Chile, and even South Africa.

Despite the nation's Parliamentary history and cultural commitment to the freedom of speech, the UK has slipped further behind its neighbours who continue to populate the top spots, where Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands occupy the top five positions respectively.

Ireland has dropped five positions to 14, though remains highly ranked, while the regular offenders are at the bottom of the list. North Korea, Eritrea, China and Cuba have consistently been among the lowest rankings in the previous years of the Index.

Among the issues with the UK's respect for press freedom was the Law Commission's plans to target journalists with a punitive new official secrets law, though these have stalled since The Register revealed the lack of process behind the proposals.

Open Rights Group executive director Jim Killock responded to the rankings drop: "Extensive surveillance powers are threatening investigative journalism and freedom of expression in the UK. In just four years, the UK has fallen ten places in the World Press Freedom Index, a deeply worrying trend that needs to be addressed.

"The government failed to protect journalists when it passed the Investigatory Powers Act. Now, the Law Commission has proposed to send them to prison if they so much as handle official data. This comes at a time when we must be able to hold the Government to account over its vast surveillance powers. Mass surveillance chills freedom of expression and undermines democracy."

In an analysis piece accompanying the index, Reporters Without Borders warned that "media freedom's erosion is particularly visible in the European democracies. Even the Nordic top performers that have traditionally headed the Index have dropped a few places – three in the case of the Netherlands and two in the case of Finland, which has lost its No. 1 position for the first time in six years."

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Additional hostility towards the press expressed by US President Donald Trump has caused concern:

The election of the 45th president of the United States set off a witchhunt against journalists. Donald Trump's repeated diatribes against the Fourth Estate and its representatives – accusing them of being "among the most dishonest human beings on earth" and of deliberately spreading "fake news" – compromise a long US tradition of defending freedom of expression. The hate speech used by the new boss in the White House and his accusations of lying also helped to disinhibit attacks on the media almost everywhere in the world, including in democratic countries.

"The democracies that have traditionally regarded media freedom as one of the foundations on which they are built must continue to be a model for the rest of the world, and not the opposite," RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said. "By eroding this fundamental freedom on the grounds of protecting their citizens, the democracies are in danger of losing their souls." ®

* A 17th century polemic attempting to persuade the Parliament of the time to ditch prepublication censorship and advocating for and defending freedom of expression in general.

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