The 2017 World Press Freedom Index, released April 26 by Reporters Without Borders — known internationally as Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) — revealed a decline in the UK's ranking. Down two places from last year, the UK has come in at 40th out of 180 countries in terms of respect for press freedom.
Throughout the year, RSF highlighted a number of "worrying moves" against press freedom in the UK. In September 2016, UK border authorities detained and questioned award-winning Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim at London Heathrow airport, then seized her passport, which had falsely been flagged as stolen by the Assad regime, leaving Erhaim and her infant daughter at risk. Seven months later, the UK Home Office has yet to return the passport.
"In November 2016, the UK parliament adopted the menacing Investigatory Powers Act, referred to as the most extreme surveillance legislation ever adopted in the UK. The law lacks sufficient mechanisms to protect whistleblowers, journalists, and their sources, and RSF has cautioned it could serve as a death sentence for investigative journalism in the UK," the report said.
Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 continues to pose a threat to press freedom, the report says, because it contains a cost-shifting provision that, if implemented, could hold publishers liable for the costs of all claims made against them, regardless of merit. Even more alarming is the Law Commission's proposal for a new "Espionage Act" that would make it easy to label journalists and others as "spies" and jail them for up to 14 years for simply obtaining leaked information.
"We remain concerned about the trend of deteriorating press freedom both globally and in the UK, particularly now with a general election approaching, as a vibrant media and a robust public debate are essential to the democratic process," said Rebecca Vincent, RSF UK Bureau Director.
"The UK government must act now to reverse this worrying trend and ensure that it is respecting and protecting press freedom in line with the UK's international commitments," she said.
Brexit 'Media Bashing'
According to the report, the drop in the UK's ranking fits in with a broader trend in this year's Index of leading democracies falling, including the United States, Chile, and New Zealand.
The high-profile media bashing and toxic anti-media discourse surrounding Brexit in the UK contributed to a new global era of post-truth, disinformation, and fake news.
"The rate at which democracies are approaching the tipping point is alarming for all those who understand that, if media freedom is not secure, then none of the other freedoms can be guaranteed Where will this downward spiral take us?" RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said.