Journalism's Darkening World, by Bill Wanlund

It’s a volatile time for journalists. That’s the judgment of Reporters Without Borders (known as RSF for its French initialism), which rates 180 countries based on political, economic, legislative, sociocultural, and security “indicators.” Writing in the organization’s 2023 World Press Freedom Index, RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire blames “increased aggressiveness on the part of the authorities in many countries and growing animosity towards journalists on social media and in the physical world.” He adds that “the volatility is also the consequence of growth in the fake content industry, which produces and distributes disinformation and provides the tools for manufacturing it.”

To drive the point home, RSF reports that, in 118 of the 180 countries surveyed, most respondents said “political actors in their countries were often or systematically involved in massive disinformation or propaganda campaigns.” Twitter boss Elon Musk gets some of the blame for his “arbitrary” and “payment-based” approach to information, which has seen journalists barred from the platform. RSF calls Twitter “quicksand for journalism.”

Another villain is Artificial Intelligence: For all its usefulness, AI has a dark side, RSF says: “The disinformation industry [uses it to disseminate] manipulative content on a huge scale…, digesting content and regurgitating it in the form of syntheses that flout the principles of rigor and reliability.” As an example, RSF points to the latest iteration of the sophisticated image-generating application Midjourney, which “has been feeding social media with increasingly plausible and undetectable fake ‘photos’.”

Europe, and particularly European Union countries, is deemed the easiest region of the world for journalists to practice their trade; led by top-rated Norway. Europe claims the first nine places in RSF’s global ranking (Timor-Leste comes in at number ten). At the bottom? North Korea.

The U.S. stands in an uninspiring 45th place (above Gambia but below Tonga and the Dominican Republic), dropping two places from 2022’s list, mostly due to the killings of two journalists in the past two years. RSF comments, “In a diverse global media landscape, local news (in the U.S.) has declined significantly in recent years. A growing interest in partisan media threatens their objectivity, while public confidence in the media has fallen dangerously.”

RSF judges the Middle East-North Africa region to be the most dangerous part of the world in which to practice journalism – the situation in more than half of the region’s countries was scored “very serious,” thanks to authoritarian government suppression and the violence in many countries.

Click on World Press Freedom Index for an interactive map and country-by-country rankings and narratives, including links to earlier reports.

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Bill Wanlund is a PDCA Board Member, retired Foreign Service Officer, and freelance writer in the Washington, DC area. His column, Worth Noting, appears in the PDCA Weekly Update and the PDCA Blog; it seeks to address topics of interest to PDCA members.