The shadow of war in Ukraine hangs over press freedom in Europe

By tradition, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) publishes its World Press Freedom Index on 3 May, World Press Freedom Day. While Europe again performed well overall, taking the top nine places in the ranking, the situation in many countries is far from ideal and has even deteriorated.

The war in Ukraine has had a massive impact on press freedom within Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. Russia itself “has launched a final ‘purge’ of the Russian media landscape,” explains RSF: “A leaden blanket has fallen over the last remaining independent Russian media outlets, which have been banned, blocked and/or declared ‘foreign agents’”. This systematic censorship and exiling of critical journalists has effectively turned Russia into an information wasteland of pro-government propaganda.

Then there are the war crimes committed by Russian troops in Ukraine. The social network Telegram, popular in Russia, has been used to circumvent censorship of the Western media coverage of them – but also by the Russian authorities themselves, as another propaganda channel. It is therefore not surprising that Russia has fallen from 155th to 164th place (out of 180) in the RSF World Press Freedom Index. In Europe only Turkey (165th) scores worse.

In Ukraine, RSF notes, “the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus is deployed at great speed whenever the Russian forces conquer new territory – TV channels are jammed, Ukrainian media are replaced, and local journalists are hunted down”. In the rest of the country journalists enjoy more freedom, “despite the turmoil in the news media, the difficulties associated with covering a country at war, and reporting restrictions. […] The war and the spirit of national unity have reduced the oligarchs’ hold on the media and the pressures that were due to divisions”. As a result, Ukraine has risen from 106th place in 2022 to 79th place this year.

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In Belarus, an abysmal situation has worsened. Already “the most dangerous country in Europe for journalists” before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Belarus has fallen from 153rd to 157th place in RSF’s rankings.

The rest of Europe does slightly better

Further west, Germany (21st) “registered a record number of acts of violence and arrests of journalists” and dropped five places. Poland (57th), “where the year 2022 was relatively calm in terms of press freedom”, moves up 9 places, and France (24th) moves up 2 places. In Greece (107th), a vast eavesdropping scandal (in which journalists have been targeted by the secret services and “Predator” spyware) is the most serious recent attack on press freedom in the EU and explains why Greece is the worst-placed EU country this year.

In Albania (96th), “the prosecutor’s office imposed disproportionate restrictions on journalistic coverage of a cyber-attack of Iranian origin”. Nearby Serbia (91st), where “pro-government media spread Russian propaganda”, saw the biggest drop in the region (-12 points). And in the United Kingdom (26th), where Julian Assange is still awaiting extradition to the United States – and up to 175 years in prison – “investigative journalism is threatened by a national security bill that lacks protective measures”.

In Latvia (16th) “the media regulator arbitrarily revoked an independent Russian channel’s media licence”. In Finland (5th) “two journalists were convicted of revealing state secrets”, while even Sweden (4th) “has undermined the confidentiality of journalists’ sources”. The improved performance of many Central and Eastern European countries – including Hungary! – goes hand in hand with “an awareness of how independent information can serve as a bulwark against Kremlin propaganda”, notes RSF.

Yet despite all these caveats, RSF stresses that “the gap in the rankings among EU member countries has narrowed significantly”, and that “twice as many countries have risen in the 2023 Index as have fallen.” Good news indeed as the EU discusses unprecedented legislation that would establish common standards for press freedom.

Meanwhile, on the eve of World Press Freedom Day, the Vrije Universiteit Brussels and the Université Libre de Bruxelles awarded the annual Freedom of Expression Prize to Mexican-American author and former president of International PEN Jennifer Clement for her commitment to women’s rights, oppressed groups and freedom of expression, and to Indian journalist Ravish Kumar for his relentless denunciation of New Delhi’s nationalist government for its persecution of India’s independent media.

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