Seriously Under Threat: Press Freedom Around The World

Seriously Under Threat: Press Freedom Around The World

By Kristyna Foltynova April 28, 2021

May 3 marks World Press Freedom Day. It is an opportunity to celebrate the core principles of a free press, remind governments of the need to respect that freedom, and pay tribute to the journalists who have lost their lives carrying out their work.

So what is the state of press freedom around the world? What barriers do journalists still face? And what do people in different countries think about the restrictions and liberties they are confronted with every day?

The State Of Press Freedom Around The World

Each year, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) publishes the World Press Freedom Index, which ranks 180 countries according to their media independence, transparency, acts of violence against journalists, and several other criteria.

According to the latest survey, published in April 2021, journalism is seriously under threat in almost three-quarters of all countries -- the report describes the situation in those places as "problematic," "bad," or "very bad." Only 12 countries have respectable press-freedom environments, the lowest number since 2013 when the current evaluation methodology was adopted.

Press Freedom By Country
(Based on RSF's 2021 report)

According to RSF's report, the state of press freedom was not described as "good" in any country in RFE/RL's coverage area. Romania received a "fairly good" ranking, but the remaining countries RFE/RL covers were among those ranked as "problematic" or "bad." In Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkmenistan, the state of press freedom was described as "very bad."

Since 2013, 12 countries in RFE/RL's coverage area have improved their ratings, while 10 countries have seen theirs worsen. The most significant difference was observed in Georgia, which climbed 40 places in the rankings, followed by Ukraine (29 places), and Kyrgyzstan (27 places). Tajikistan saw the biggest decline -- by 39 places -- followed by Hungary (36 places) and Moldova (34 places).

State Of Press Freedom In Selected Countries
(2013 and 2021 rankings compared)

Dangers That
Journalists Face

Journalists in many countries face violence and various forms of intimidation, especially when reporting about authoritarian regimes or organized crime.

Between 1992 and 2021, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has registered more than 1,400 journalists who were killed in retaliation for their work -- and another 560 killings where the exact motive was not clear. The year 2012 saw the largest number of journalists killed -- more than 100 -- due to the conflict in Syria and a record number of shootings in Somalia.

While it might seem that the total number of slain journalists has been dropping over the past few years, the CPJ has warned that reporters are now more frequently killed in areas that are considered peaceful. For example, in 2016, 42 percent of killings happened in nonwar zones, but in 2020, it was 68 percent.

Number Of Journalists Killed By Year
(Killings with confirmed and unconfirmed motives combined)

In addition, there were 274 imprisoned and 65 missing journalists as of the end of 2020, the highest number ever recorded.

Number Of Imprisoned
And Missing Journalists

(Data as of the end of each year)

Over the last three decades, more than one-quarter of all slain journalists died in just three countries -- Iraq, Syria, and the Philippines. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Russia -- countries in RFE/RL's coverage area -- are also among the 10 countries with the highest number of journalists killed. Furthermore, they were included in the Impunity Index Report released in December 2020 by the CPJ, listing countries where "journalists are singled out for murder and their killers go free."

Most Dangerous Countries For Journalists
(Number of slain journalists by country, 1992‑2021)

Many journalists also face persecution online, including harassment, hate speech, and trolling. Female journalists have faced considerable challenges. In November 2020, a study by the International Center for Journalists and UNESCO revealed that almost three-quarters of all female journalists who participated in the survey experienced threats online in the course of their work. Almost 50 percent were abused with hateful language and one-quarter received threats of physical violence.

Is A Free Press Important To People?

In 2019, the U.S.-based Pew Research Center Pew Research Center interviewed people in more than 30 countries to find out whether media freedom was important to them. Americans were among those who cared the most -- 80 percent said that it was very important to them that the media can report the news without state or government censorship. In Russia, only 38 percent of people agreed with that statement -- down by 8 percentage points from 2015.

Freedom Of The Press Is Very Important
(Percentage of people who agreed, selected countries included)

According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, which surveyed 28 countries in November 2020, more than 60 percent of people think the media is failing to be objective and nonpartisan. People were also asked whether they trust the media "to do what is right." Confidence was highest in Indonesia (72 percent) and lowest in Russia (29 percent).

Trust In Media "To Do What Is Right"
(Top 3 and bottom 3 countries included)

In October 2020, the Ipsos market research group discovered that almost 80 percent of Russians and Hungarians only read news they could access for free -- the largest shares among the 27 countries surveyed. In a separate question, people were asked whether they were willing to pay for news from sources they could trust. In Russia, only 15 percent said yes; in Hungary, 23 percent.

I Only Read News That I Can Access For Free
(Percentage of people who agree, 2020 data)

RFE/RL Journalists Who Have Lost Their Lives So Far This Century

2000: Iskandar Khatloni

Iskandar Khatloni, 45, was a Moscow-based correspondent for RFE/RL's Tajik Service. He was attacked by an unknown assailant in his apartment and died from his injuries in the hospital on September 21, 2000. Khatloni covered many topics, but focused on human rights in Chechnya and drug trafficking in Tajikistan.

2006: Ogulsapar Muradova

Ogulsapar Muradova, 58, died in custody in September 2006 after being swept up in a Turkmen government crackdown on dissidents. The circumstances of her death while being held at the notorious Ovodan Depe prison are not clear. After her body was released to her family, Muradova's children said they found a "large wound" on her head. Muradova was a reporter for RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, where she reported on human rights in the country.

2007: Nazar Abdulwahid al-Radhi

Nazar Abdulwahid al-Radhi, 38, was fatally shot outside a hotel in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Amarah on May 30, 2007, after he had finished covering a journalism workshop. Radhi was a correspondent for the Aswat Al-Iraq news agency and RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq. He was passionate about training young journalists.

2007: Khamail Muhsin Khalaf

Khamail Muhsin Khalaf, 50, had been missing for two days before she was found dead in Baghdad on April 5, 2007. She had been tortured and shot in the head. Khalaf worked for RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq. She was an advocate of women's rights and other reforms.

2007: Alisher Saipov

Alisher Saipov, 26, was fatally shot while waiting for a taxi with a friend outside his office in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, on October 24, 2007. Besides working for RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, he also contributed to Voice of America's Uzbek Service, the BBC World Service, and other media outlets. In particular, Saipov reported about corruption in Uzbekistan and rights violations in the Ferghana Valley.

2014: Mohammed Bdaiwi Owaid al-Shammari

Mohammed Bdaiwi Owaid al-Shammari, 46, was fatally shot at a checkpoint near his office in Baghdad on March 22, 2014. He was shot by an off-duty presidential guard who was later prosecuted and imprisoned. Shammari was the bureau chief of RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq and was also a member of several editorial boards of Iraqi media institutions.

2018: Maharram Durrani

Maharram Durrani, 28, was still in training when she died in a coordinated suicide bomb attack in Kabul on April 30, 2018. According to local police, the attack -- which killed 25 people -- deliberately targeted the press. Durrani was a student of Islamic law at Kabul University and was passionate about reporting on women's issues in Afghanistan.

2018: Abadullah Hananzai

Abadullah Hananzai, 26, died on April 30, 2018, in a coordinated suicide bomb attack in Kabul. Hananzai led a project reporting on drugs for RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan.

2018: Sabawoon Kakar

Sabawoon Kakar, 30, died on April 30, 2018, after he was critically injured in a coordinated suicide bomb attack in Kabul. Kakar was a video journalist and often covered the aftermath of suicide attacks, counterterrorism operations, and other security-related issues.

2020: Mohammad Ilyas Dayee

Mohammad Ilyas Dayee, 33, was a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. He was killed in a car bomb attack in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province, on November 12, 2020. Dayee reported the news from his native Helmand Province, which is where most of the world's illicit opium is produced.