Police officers detain journalist Roman Protasevich as he was attempting to cover a rally in Minsk, Belarus. File Photo by Stringer/EPA-EFE
May 3 (UPI) -- A record number of countries are rated "very bad" for press freedom, according to the new World Press Freedom Index that Reporters Without Borders released on Tuesday.
Reporters Without Borders, an international nonprofit group, which has the stated aim of protecting freedom of information, rated the press freedom situation "very bad" in a record 28 countries.
The report "highlights the disastrous effects of news and information chaos-- the effects of globalized and unregulated online information space that encourages fake news and propaganda," according to an analysis of its global findings.
"At the international level, democracies are being weakened by the asymmetry between open societies and despotic regimes that control their media and online platforms while waging propaganda wards against democracies," the analysis added.
The index is a snapshot of the press freedom situation in 180 countries and territories during the year before its publication, but it's also updated in certain situations, such as the Russia-Ukraine war, to take into account the most recent events, analysts noted.
Among the 28 countries rated "very bad," were Russia (155th) and Belarus (153rd).
Analysts also warned of heightened repression worsening the "very bad" situation for press freedom since the Russia-Ukraine war began on Feb. 24, according to the report.
"In Eastern Europe, beyond the human tragedies, the war waged by Russia (155th) against Ukraine is creating devastating consequences for press freedom in the region," the report stated. "As many as five journalists and media workers have died as a result of gunfire during the first month of the Russian offensive."
"The Kremlin is imposing its vision of the war on some of its neighbors, especially in Belarus," the report added.
In Belarus, more than 20 media workers have been imprisoned since the controversial presidential election of Alexander Lukashenko to a sixth term in August 2020, according to the report, and a growing number of media outlets are labeled as "extremist."
The label means reading and sharing their content is subject to criminal prosecution.
The report also noted how Lukashenko diverted a plane in May 2021 to arrest opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, who had gone into exile.
The world's 10 worst countries for press freedom included China (175th), Iran (178th) North Korea (180th), Eritrea (179th), Palestine (170th), Turkmenistan (177th) and Myanmar (176th), where a coup in February 2021 "set press freedom back 10 years," among others.
According to the report, journalists have been "risking their lives in the Middle East," and "several were killed while working or deliberately murdered."
In particular, the report pointed out that "Saudi Arabia (166th), which just succeeded in having Turkey (149th) transfer Jamal Khashoggi case for trial in the kingdom's courts, is one of the world's worst prisons for journalists."
On the other hand, top countries for press freedom included Norway, Denmark and Sweden.
Moldova (40th) and Bulgaria (91st) also stood out due "to a government change and the hope it has brought for improvement in the situation for journalists even if oligarchs still own or control the media," the report stated.
The United States saw a modest increase to 42nd under the Biden administration, from 44th place in 2020 under the last year of the Trump's administration. The Trump administration was marked by a record number of assaults against journalists and arrests of members of the media, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a partner of Reporters Without Borders.
This was due to the Biden administration making improvements, such as reinstating regular White House and federal agency press briefings, but other issues remain.
"These include the disappearance of local newspapers, the systematic polarization of the media, and the erosion of journalism by digital platforms amid a climate of animosity and aggression towards journalists, among others," the report stated.
The report also said that "the spread of opinion media" has exacerbated the problem.
"Within democratic societies, divisions are growing as a result of the spread of opinion media following the 'Fox News model,' and the spread of disinformation circuits that are amplified by the way social media functions," the report stated.
"Media polarization is feeding and reinforcing internal social divisions in democratic societies such as the United States, despite Joe Biden's election," the report added.
The index was released on May 3 to mark World Press Freedom Day.
The U.S. Congress also introduced bipartisan resolutions on Tuesday in recognition of World Press Freedom Day to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to free press.