U.S. Press Freedom Gets Labeled 'Problematic' For The First Time

The 2019 World Press Freedom Index downgraded the U.S. three spots to 48 out of 180 countries in terms of a free press.

The United States has become a “problematic” place for journalists as they continue to face a stream of threats and attacks on their safety, according to a new report about press freedom released Thursday.

The 2019 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), downgraded the U.S. by three spots compared with last year. The drop, which puts them at 48 out of 180 countries, changes the U.S. press freedom status from “satisfactory” to “problematic.” It’s the first time the country has received that label.

“As a result of an increasingly hostile climate that goes beyond Donald Trump’s comments, the United States (48th) has fallen three places in this year’s index and the media climate is now classified as “problematic” (orange),” RSF said. “Never before have U.S. journalists been subjected to so many death threats or turned so often to private security firms for protection.”

According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, 10 journalists so far have faced physical attacks in the country this year. Since 2017, 46 journalists have been attacked while covering protests, including one who was punched in the face in January. The RSF report also cited the June 2018 massacre in which a man walked into the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, and killed five journalists, and the October 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey. 

Trump has played a significant role in hostility toward media, repeatedly accusing journalists of reporting “fake news” and calling them the “enemy of the American people.” He has also cheered on violence against journalists, such as praising a GOP congressman’s assault on a reporter in May 2017. In November, the White House was forced to restore press credentials for a CNN reporter after stripping him of his pass following a heated exchange with Trump at a press conference.

In August, United Nations human rights leaders said the president’s repeated attacks undermine press freedom and raise the risk of violence against journalists.

“The president’s relentless attacks against the press has created an environment where verbal, physical and online threats and assault against journalists are being normalized,” RSF Interim Executive Director Sabine Dolan told NPR.

Only 24% of the countries and territories were classified in the RSF report as “good” or “satisfactory,” compared with 26% last year. The report said that North and South America faced the greatest deterioration in terms of press freedom. In addition to poor performance in the U.S., Brazil fell three spots, to 105th, due to the media being targeted by President Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters since the election campaign. Venezuela fell five spots, to 148th, after journalists faced arrests and violence by security forces while dealing with economic disparity and potential regime change.

Nicaragua fell a whopping 24 places after journalists were physically attacked for covering protests against President Daniel Ortega’s government, and many had to flee the country to avoid being arrested on terrorism charges, according to the report.

“If the political debate slides surreptitiously or openly towards a civil war-style atmosphere, in which journalists are treated as scapegoats, then democracy is in great danger,” RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said in the report. “Halting this cycle of fear and intimidation is a matter of the utmost urgency for all people of good will who value the freedoms acquired in the course of history.”

RSF determined its rankings using a 20-language survey for media professionals and experts, whose answers were combined with data on abuses against journalists. The scores measure constraints and violations, so the higher the country scores, the worse its press freedom.