Each year Reporters Without Borders releases its World Press Freedom Index, a measure of the level of media freedom (or, as is more often the case, the lack of freedom). 

It typically isn’t a very uplifting read — press freedom has been in decline in many parts of the world. Each year, RWB slaps a new coat of paint on the gloomy read — this year’s is “Entering a decisive decade for journalism, exacerbated by coronavirus.”

RWB ranks the countries and provides a detailed summary of relevant events. This is helpful analysis, but it focuses attention on the absolute ranking (if the situation is satisfactory, problematic etc.) and can miss the longer-term trends taking place. 

The Fix looked into published World Press Freedom Index data and compared 2015 vs 2020 Press Freedom Rankings data in European countries to understand the changes that took place over this time.

Source: The Fix research

Europe, particularly the Northern part, is the global leader in terms of media freedom. As in many other rankings Scandinavia rules the roost, together with a handful of rich states like Ireland or Switzerland. They have been moving around slightly, but without major changes.

What is more interesting are the big stories of changes — the improvement of South Europe vs. the decline in Central Europe. Or why some countries on the lower end of the spectrum have significantly improved (e.g., Ukraine), or declined further (e.g., Moldova).

The decline of Central Europe is arguably the biggest and most depressing story in European press freedom. Poland is at the forefront – having lost an incredible 44 positions since 2015 — having turned the public broadcaster into a government mouthpiece and political hostility towards free press, including threats of nationalization and defamation legislation.

Poland’s colleagues from the so-called Visegrad block aren’t doing too well either. In Czechia online smear campaigns, hostility of government bodies and a concentration of ownership is clamping down on the 4th estate.. Meanwhile, the Orban government in Hungary has methodically dismantled free press using a wide range of tools.

The 2018 murder of Jan Kuciak, a Slovak investigative reporter, was a big reason for the country’s fall in the rankings. Recent years have unfortunately had quite a few such cases, the most prominent being the 2017 assassination via car bomb of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia (Malta was down 33 ranks to 86th in 2020).

Bulgaria has also witnessed terrible abuse of journalists, including the rape and murder of Viktoria Marinova in 2018. This doesn’t show up in the changes in rankings though — the Southeast European countries has consistently been the continent’s worst place for media barring Russia, Turkey and Belarus.

On a more optimistic note, the bulk of South Europe has seen significant improvements. Top performer Portugal jumped 16 positions to rank 10th in 2020, while both Italy and Greece have seen major increases (of 32 and 30 positions, respectively). 

Italy owes the rise to the acquittal of journalists tried in the Vatileaks case as well as efforts to rein in the influence of organized crime. Meanwhile, in Greece dysfunctional politics and the rise of populism have abated in terms of impact compared to previous years — not great, but getting better.

Ukraine Illustrates perhaps the most uplifting breakthrough in the region, raising up to 33 positions from 129 in 2015 to 96 in 2020. Ukraine has been steadily coming out of a dark period of censorship under the authoritarian Yanukovych regime, as well as the revolution and war that followed, though the situation remains fragile.