Every year, Reporters Without Borders publishes the World Press Freedom Index, a complex global study. Europe is the safest region – and mostly becoming safer. But a crisis in Central Europe and Malta is threatening the region’s broader democratic achievements.

Press freedom rankings are typically a gloomy read – with cause. The tragedies are unforgivable and unacceptable. 

But dark reports can also be misleading. They overfocus on headlines, sometimes missing longer term trends. Things look different looking at a 5-year perspective. 

Europe is currently the freest part of the world and there are positive trends in Northern and Southern Europe in particular. While Scandinavian countries rank consistently high, a steady rise of freedom can be seen in both Italy and Greece (of 41 and 70 positions, respectively). 

Those changes are partially linked to efforts to rein in organized crime, as well as resistance to populism. Other countries have seen analogous processes, tackling corruption, oligarchy and unsavoury politicians. This includes Ukraine, North Macedonia and even Kosovo. 

Yet this largely positive picture is overshadowed by a steady and persistent degradation of media freedom at the core of Europe. Poland, once in the upper echelons of the rating (18th in 2015), is now down to 64th place. 

Threats to ad revenues from the government, multiple attempts to purchase media by state controlled oil firm Orlen, and a public broadcaster that is a government mouthpiece have all contributed to drastic drop of freedom of speech. 

A similar situation unfolds in Hungary and Slovenia, where journalists regularly deal with verbal assaults from government officials and the possibility of funding cuts for the state media. 

In Malta there has been a steady decline in journalism safety and freedom of speech. The country is under the shadow of the 2017 assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a political reporter and anti-corruption activist. 

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This rotting core is dangerous beyond the countries’ borders. For one, criminals and corrupt officials don’t respect national boundaries. Moreover, illberal governments inspire others. Just as Poland and Hungary sometimes appear to copy Russian solutions, others may look to them as examples.

European Union leaders are starting to take the threat more seriously. Věra Jourová, the vice president of the EU outlined her concerns in the recent speech to MEPs. 

“The reality is, as you know well, that the competences of the Commission when it comes to media are very limited,” Jourová told the MEPs. “Whilst we will use those competences in a very diligent manner, I want us to identify how we can widen and strengthen the toolbox that the Commission has — from financial support to regulation and enforcement actions.”

So far most discussion has been around linking budget transfers to rule of law. But this tool needs to be used (and others developed), to stop the rot.

More from The Fix:Poland, Hungary, Belarus attacks on media freedom

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