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RSF: Press freedoms under pressure in pandemic

Alex Berry
April 20, 2021

A new report says that while press freedom around the world has been restricted during the coronavirus pandemic, journalism continues to be a tool against misinformation. Germany has come in for specific criticism.

Protester holding up a sign reading "Free all journalists"
Many countries around the world have responded to the coronavirus pandemic by restricting reportingImage: Imago Images/S. Boness

The global COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased repression and attacks on journalism worldwide, a report published on Tuesday by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) concluded.

Reporting on coronavirus developments has been restricted in countries across the globe. Some countries have also seen governments use the crisis to tighten their grip on the media while others, including Germany, have seen an increase in attacks on journalists.

"The coronavirus pandemic has reinforced and consolidated repressive tendencies worldwide," RSF Germany's Executive Director Christian Mihr told DW.

But journalists have also been vital in challenging misinformation spread by leaders such as former US President Donald Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro.

Independent journalism is the "singular effective tool against the misinformation pandemic," Mihr said.

2021 World Press Freedom Index

Press freedoms harmed in Europe

Although European countries make up seven of the top 10 listed by RSF in their 2021 World Press Freedom Index, the report stated that only the top three — Norway, Finland and Sweden — sufficiently protected press freedom.

The report blasted the UK for its handling of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, with the country dropping two places.

"33rd place is not a good position for the motherland of democracy," Mihr said of the UK.

The report also condemned Greece and Spain for their attempts to restrict reporting about migrants as well as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's "unabashed political decision to throttle free speech and press freedom."

Fake news in Hungary

Germany too saw its share of criticism in the report. The many incidents of reporters being attacked by conspiracy theorists at anti-lockdown protests helped bring the country's press freedom score down two places to 13th.

"We've registered 5 times more violence against journalists who covered these protests," Mihr said. "And unfortunately, German police have not always protected the work of journalists."

A dangerous situation for journalists around the world

Unsurprisingly, Belarus came off poorly in the report. More than 400 journalists had been arrested there by the end of 2020.

The eastern European country's restrictions of press freedom gave it one of the worst global scores and placed it 158 out of a total of 180 listed countries.

Neighboring Russia only fared slightly better, landing at position 150.

African countries, on average, continued to perform badly, with Eritrea ranking worst of all globally. The continent was deemed the most dangerous for journalists.

However, some countries stood out for their improvements. Burundi jumped up 13 places, to 147, after releasing several journalists who had been arbitrarily arrested.

An earlier version of this story quoted "50 times" more violence against journalists in Germany inseatd of 5 times. This has been corrected. We apologize for the error.