“The ‘Fox News-ization’ of the media poses a fatal danger for democracies because it undermines the basis of civil harmony and tolerant public debate,” said the leader of Reporters Without Borders.
A global press freedom watchdog group warned Tuesday in its annual report that media polarization within and between countries—driven by the rapid spread of right-wing disinformation on social media and the proliferation of pro-authoritarian propaganda—is “fueling increased tension” and escalating the likelihood of violence.
The 20th World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) assesses the state of journalism around the globe. The 2022 edition details the “disastrous effects of news and information chaos”—the product of “a globalized and unregulated online information space that encourages fake news and propaganda.”
Within nominally 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,” RSF noted.
“At the international level,” wrote RSF, “democracies are being weakened by the asymmetry between open societies and despotic regimes that control their media and online platforms while waging propaganda wars against democracies.”
According to RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire, “Margarita Simonyan, the Editor in Chief of RT (the former Russia Today), revealed what she really thinks in a Russia One TV broadcast when she said, ‘no great nation can exist without control over information.'”
In addition to suppressing their citizens’ right to information, “the creation of media weaponry in authoritarian countries… is also linked to the rise in international tension,” said Deloire, “which can lead to the worst kind of wars.”
RSF argued that Russia’s (ranked 155th out of 180) late-February invasion of Ukraine (106th) exemplifies this process, as the ongoing military assault “was preceded by a propaganda war.”
“China (175th), one of the world’s most repressive autocratic regimes, uses its legislative arsenal to confine its population and cut it off from the rest of the world, especially the population of Hong Kong (148th), which has plummeted in the Index,” RSF continued. Pointing to India (150th), led by right-wing Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, and neighboring Pakistan (157th), the group added that “confrontation between ‘blocs’ is growing.”
Within countries, meanwhile, Deloire said that “the ‘Fox News-ization’ of the media poses a fatal danger for democracies because it undermines the basis of civil harmony and tolerant public debate.”
The United States (42nd) moved up two spots in the 2022 Index “thanks to improvements made by the Biden administration, such as reinstating regular White House and federal agency press briefings,” wrote RSF. “Nevertheless, chronic issues impacting journalists remain unaddressed. 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.”
Highly polarizing “new opinion media” and social media are “feeding and reinforcing” internal social and political divisions well beyond the U.S. RSF singled out France (26th) as a place where the spread of right-wing disinformation is exacerbating tensions.
Moreover, RSF pointed out, the crackdown on independent media is “contributing to a sharp polarization in ‘illiberal democracies’ such as Poland (66th), where the authorities have consolidated their control over public broadcasting and their strategy of ‘re-Polonizing’ the privately-owned media.”
RSF classified press freedom as “very bad” in a record 28 nations in this year’s Index. The five worst countries for journalism are Myanmar (176th), where the February 2021 coup d’état “set press freedom back by 10 years,” as well as Turkmenistan (177th), Iran (178th), Eritrea (179th), and North Korea (180th).
But human rights advocates have consistently highlighted how ostensibly “open societies” have also facilitated attacks on whistleblowers and the free press.
When Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last July that the U.S. “will always support the indispensable work of independent journalists around the world,” critics were quick to point out that Washington’s purported commitment to press freedom doesn’t apply to WikiLeaks founder and publisher Julian Assange.
The CIA, under the leadership of then-Director Mike Pompeo, reportedly plotted to kidnap—and discussed plans to assassinate—Assange in 2017.
Last month, a British judge officially approved the U.S. government’s request to extradite Assange, who has been imprisoned for more than 1,100 days. He faces espionage charges for publishing classified information that exposed war crimes committed by American forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
According to RSF, “The trio of Nordic countries at the top of the Index—Norway, Denmark, and Sweden—continues to serve as a democratic model where freedom of expression flourishes, while Moldova (40th) and Bulgaria (91st) stand out this year thanks 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.”
Deloire, for his part, stressed that “urgent decisions are needed in response to these issues,” including “promoting a New Deal for Journalism, as proposed by the Forum on Information and Democracy, and adopting an appropriate legal framework, with a system to protect democratic online information spaces.”