U.S. Falls in World Press Freedom Index

Zeinab Mohammed Salih

Urged on by influential figures such as U.S. President Donald Trump, a growing number of world leaders are openly encouraging hostility toward the news media as journalists across the globe face increasing animosity for their work, according to a report by an international press watchdog organization.

That is the conclusion from the 2018 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, or RSF. The annual ranking, released on Wednesday and which also showed a big decline in freedom of speech across the world, dropped the U.S. two positions from its 2017 position, to No. 45 overall.

Trump, who is just 15 months into his presidency, has popularized the phrase "fake news" as a reference to unflattering news reports. The phrase has become widely used by many of his supporters and, according to the RSF report, among a growing number of world leaders.

"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," RSF said in a statement accompanying the release of its rankings. "A media-bashing enthusiast, Trump has referred to reporters as 'enemies of the people,' the term once used by (former Soviet leader) Joseph Stalin."

Much like in 2017, European nations dominate the RSF rankings for having the most press freedom. Norway ranked No. 1 and Sweden finished No. 2 in the list. The Netherlands, Finland and Switzerland rounded out the top five nations. Canada rose four positions to No. 18 overall and was classified by RSF as having a "fairly good" press freedom climate.

Of the 180 nations assessed, North Korea finished last, followed by Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Syria and China.

By region, RSF ranked Europe as having the greatest press freedom, followed by the Americas, Africa, the Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe/Central Asia and the Middle East/North Africa.

The Middle East and North Africa experienced the biggest decline in freedom of speech by region in the world, as countries in the region struggle with war and political clashes.

"Armed conflicts, terrorism charges against independent journalists and media, and growing online surveillance and censorship make reporting extremely dangerous for the region's journalists" according to the RSF report, which cited ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen, and the government use of terrorism charges in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as factors imperiling journalists.

[ LEARN: The five countries that jail the most journalists.]

Western democracies, however, provided the greatest alarm in the RSF report. Four of the five biggest declines in the index from the previous year are from European nations. Malta dropped 18 positions from its 2017 ranking to No. 65 overall; the Czech Republic dropped 11 slots to No. 34; Serbia fell 10 positions to No. 76; and Slovakia dropped 10 positions to No. 27.

Statements by Trump are also responsible for the decline in media freedom around the world, the organization said. After Trump called CNN a fake news organization, some Libyan media outlets questioned the cable network's report on modern slave auctions in the country last year.

"The U.S.' decline in press freedom is not simply bad news for journalists working inside the country; the downward trend has drastic consequences at the international level," RSF said. " 'Fake news' is now a trademark excuse for media repression, in both democratic and authoritarian regimes."

Earlier this month, April Ryan -- the Washington, D.C. bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks and a political analyst for CNN -- said she had received death threats after asking press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders whether Trump had considered resigning.

"To me, this report shows how important it is for journalists everywhere to maintain the highest of standards, no matter whether the criticism of our craft is unwarranted. We need to be fair and transparent and never lose sight that what we do helps keep societies free and hold the powerful accountable," said investigative journalist Blake Morrison, an assistant professor at Columbia University in New York City and an instructor at a summer workshop for journalists in the Balkans.

RSF said it compiled its ranking by sending out questionnaires to experts in journalism and the news media that included journalists, lawyers and academics.

"This qualitative analysis is combined with quantitative data on abuses and acts of violence against journalists during the period evaluated," the organization said.

See the top 10 countries for press freedom below, according to the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, and more country-related rankings can be found here.

Country Press Freedom Rank Best Countries Overall Rank
Norway 1 12
Sweden 2 6
Netherlands 3 10
Finland 4 14
Switzerland 5 1
Jamaica 6 N/A
Belgium 7 N/A
New Zealand 8 13
Denmark 9 11
Costa Rica 10 45

Zeinab Mohammed Salih is a Daniel Pearl Fellow with the Alfred Friendly Press Partners fellowship program.