It’s a more clandestine and dangerous world when journalists can be threatened with violence, detention, and death for doing their job.

The 2019 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) points to a serious decline in media freedoms as anti-press rhetoric has created a climate of fear and self-censorship.

The Index ranks 180 countries and regions according to the level of freedom available to journalists. It’s a snapshot of media freedom based on an evaluation of pluralism, independence of the media, quality of legislative framework and safety of journalists.

During the launch of the 2019 Index, RSF’s Executive Director Sabine Dolan said, “The scene this year is fear. And the state of journalism and press freedom around the world is declining… but also in the traditional press freedom allies – countries in Europe and in the United States.”

RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire was equally forthright: “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… 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.”

Of 180 countries in RSF’s index, only 24% are classified as “good” or “fairly good” compared to 26% in 2018. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region continues to be the most dangerous area for journalists as they face violence due to ongoing conflicts while also being deliberately targeted, imprisoned, or killed.

The Americas have seen the biggest drop in their press freedom scores. Nicaragua fell 24 places to 114. In the USA, the media climate is now classified as “problematic” as last year media organisations across the country received bomb threats and suspicious packages. And, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), it’s a nation where over 11% of the current president’s tweets insulted or criticised journalists and news media.

In 2020, forty years after the MacBride Report was first published by UNESCO, its call to protect journalists remains strong. The right to communicate and receive news and information “depends largely on the freedom of all those involved in the media to exercise objectively their role… without interference and in complete security.”

Democracy fails when heads of state, populist politicians and unregulated corporate interests are allowed to ride rough shod over freedom of the press.