Last year's gruesome beheadings of Western journalists by the self-described Islamic State were among the most visceral attacks on the press in decades, making 2014 a year most reporters would soon forget – and not only those on the ground in Syria and Iraq.
It was a year, said Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Paris-based media watchdog, in which freedom of information suffered a "dramatic decline" across the world. Of the 180 countries surveyed for its just-released annual World Press Freedom Index, two thirds performed worse than in 2013, RSF said Thursday.
Government censorship was partly to blame for the downturn, RSF said. But it also pointed to the growing threat posed by non-state actors such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State, who “follow no laws and disregard basic rights in pursuit of their own ends.”
“Motives may vary but their modus operandi is the same – the use of fear and reprisals to silence journalists and bloggers who dare to investigate them or refuse to act as their mouthpieces,” RSF said in a press release that accompanied the index.
Widespread turmoil in the Middle East – from the spread of Islamic extremism to the civil war in Libya – solidified its reputation as the most dangerous place for journalists. But Western Europe, while top-ranked, lost the most ground as a region.
Europe has been drifting downwards in the press freedom index for years. RSF says government interference in the media, which remains the status quo in many countries across the continent, presents one of the biggest obstacles to journalists.
What’s more is that the European Union appears to be under pressure from some member states to compromise on freedom of information, RSF reports. From Denmark to Hungary, journalists risk persecution for exposing government corruption and publishing critical views of ruling officials.
In Italy, an increase of violence against journalists has revived concerns about the mafia and contributed to the country’s 24-place drop to 73rd.
RSF said the United States fell three places to 49th amid a “war on information” by the Obama administration, namely its crackdown on national security leaks. It also attributed the country's fall to the detention of several journalists who were “arbitrarily arrested” during their coverage of the protests in Ferguson, Mo., following the death of Michael Brown.
Meanwhile, Russia slipped two slots to 152nd place amid “draconian laws,” a squeeze on independent media, and the Kremlin’s extensive propaganda campaign against Kiev and the West over the crisis in Ukraine.
The index’s publication coincided with a glimmer of good news in the journalism world: the release of two remaining Al Jazeera journalists jailed in Egypt on charges of aiding a "terrorist organization.” They were freed on bail Thursday after spending more than 400 days in prison, but the court said the case against them was still pending.
Egypt ranked No. 158 on the list, just 21 spots from the bottom, but one spot higher than last year.
Three Scandinavian countries topped RSF's rankings: Finland, which has been in first place for many years, followed by Norway and Denmark. The three worst performers were Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea, which came in last place. China and Iran were also among the 10 lowest-ranked countries.