The UK has one of the worst environments for press freedom in western Europe, according to a global ranking that places Britain below the likes of Uruguay, Samoa, and Chile for restrictions on reporters as they seek to hold power to account.
Reporters Without Borders, which campaigns for journalistic freedoms, said the UK ranked 40th out of 180 countries on its annual World Press Freedom Index, leaving it ranked between Trinidad & Tobago and Burkina Faso.
The campaigning organisation cited proposals to introduce tougher press regulation, the government’s campaign to limit encryption on services such as WhatsApp, and restrictions by Labour and the Conservatives on journalists’ access to politicians during the 2017 general election as evidence of a “heavy-handed” approach towards the media in the UK.
Other concerns include law firm Appleby using British courts to sue the Guardian and the BBC over the publication of the Paradise Papers, plus the fact the BBC political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, required a bodyguard for her protection while attending last autumn’s political party conferences.
Reporters Without Borders’ UK bureau director, Rebecca Vincent, said Britain’s ranking was “unacceptable for a country that plays an important international standard-setting role when it comes to human rights and fundamental freedoms”.
“We must examine the longer-term trend of worrying moves to restrict press, and hold the government to account,” she added.
Scandinavian countries scored highest on the list, with Norway taking top spot. Italy was the only western European country to have a lower ranking than the UK.
Canada ranked 18th, Australia was 19th, while the US came in at 45th. New Zealand gained five place to rank eighth.
The Guardian editor, Katharine Viner, launched the report at the Guardian’s office in central London, warning the worldwide “situation in terms of press freedom is getting worse”. She said journalists should not forget to campaign for press freedom in the UK, in addition to other countries.
James Harding, who until recently was in charge of the BBC’s news operation, said that while misinformation on social media was widely discussed it was often the actions of governments that caused real damage.
“For all the discussion of fake news, there is much more pervasive problem of state news, which is the problem of governments and politicians encroaching on the media,” he said.
They were joined by reporter Matthew Caruana Galizia, the son of murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who said the public should be aware that even in Europe journalists were being killed as a result of their work.
“Her murder has really resulted in a national trauma that is going to take us decades to recover from,” he said. “There is no one who has stepped up to claim that spot and continue the fight that she was fighting.”
He urged others to step up and continue her work. “It was easy for the people she was reporting on – all they had to do was eliminate her and they thought that would eliminate the story.”
Top five countries for press freedom:
- 1 Norway
- 2 Sweden
- 3 Netherlands
- 4 Finland
- 5 Switzerland
Worst five countries for press freedom:
- 176 China
- 177 Syria
- 178 Turkmenistan
- 179 Eritrea
- 180 North Korea