In RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index, the UK failed to improve its ranking of 40th out of 180 countries. This places the UK between Trinidad and Tobago and Burkina Faso, and leaves it as one of the worst-ranked countries in Western Europe in terms of respect for press freedom.
This follows the UK dropping two places in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, a year that saw an overall decline in democracies around the world. It also represents a staggering decline for the UK of 18 places since the first World Press Freedom Index was published in 2002, says RSF.
Throughout the year, RSF highlighted a number of what it saw as worrying moves against press freedom in the UK. An alarming proposal by the Law Commission to replace the Official Secrets Act with an updated ‘Espionage Act’ could make it easy to jail journalists as ‘spies’ for obtaining leaked information and see them jailed for up to 14 years. The government began to implement the Investigatory Powers Act with insufficient protection mechanisms for whistleblowers, journalists, and their sources. Home Secretary Amber Rudd repeatedly threatened to restrict encryption tools such as WhatsApp and announced plans to criminalise the repeated viewing of extremist content.
Both the Conservative and Labour parties restricted journalists' access to campaign events ahead of the June 2017 general election. BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg received extensive online abuse and threats, resulting in her being assigned bodyguards to cover the Labour Party conference in September. Offshore law firm Appleby have initiated legal proceedings against the BBC and The Guardian for breach of confidence over the Paradise Papers source materials, making them the only two media outlets out of 96 in 67 countries that analysed the Paradise Papers to be taken to court, says RSF.
Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 remained on the books, presenting cause for concern as the law’s punitive cost-shifting provision could hold publishers liable for the costs of all claims made against them, regardless of merit. Although after the end of the year the government announced that it would not implement Section 40 and would seek to repeal it, there have already been similar amendments proposed to the Data Protection Bill currently being deliberated in the House of Commons, making it clear that the divisive issue of press regulation continues to pose a threat to press freedom in the UK.
“Maintaining our ranking of 40th out of 180 countries is nothing to be proud of, and puts us in the embarrassing position of having one of the worst records on press freedom in Western Europe. This is unacceptable for a country that plays an important international standard-setting role when it comes to human rights and fundamental freedoms. We must examine the longer-term trend of worrying moves to restrict press freedom, and hold the UK government to account”, said RSF UK Bureau Director Rebecca Vincent.
The UK maintained its poor ranking in the midst of an alarming year for press freedom globally, particularly in Europe, a region that has been shaken by the murders of two journalists in the space of five months - Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta and Jan Kuciak in Slovakia - as well as increased threats to investigative reporters and unprecedented verbal attacks on the media.
Links / further reading: World Press Freedom Index