The digital threat to press freedom

What research tells us about how tech and the Internet influence journalists' freedoms

Close up on journalist's laptop and phone

A free press is essential in a healthy and functioning democracy. 

But press freedom is still being eroded. 

The Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Index measures the degree of freedom available to journalists in 180 countries. Until 2021, the Index assigned each country a score from 0 (the best score) to 100 (the worse score). 

From 2013 to 2021, the mean average score for all countries got worse, rising from 36.3 to 38

The latest RSF index for 2022 (which uses a different methodology and scoring system than the 2021 Index) shows that only 8 out of 180 countries (4%) are a "good" environment for journalism.

This is down from 26 "good" countries in 2013.

Norway is the most favorable country in the world for press freedom.

The UK and France are only deemed "satisfactory" for press freedom.

The US and Canada are also only deemed "satisfactory."

Russia's situation is classed as "very serious."

North Korea is the lowest-ranked country on the Index.

Digital growth

Meanwhile, the amount of people who use the Internet has more than doubled since 2008. We've also seen incredible growth in the use of digital media, including the arrival of tools and services such as Instagram, WhatsApp, Telegram, and TikTok.  

Could a rise in the popularity of digital services, coupled with the technological advances that come with this, be a threat to the freedom of the press?  

To mark UNESCO's World Press Freedom Day 2022, which focuses on the theme "Journalism Under Digital Siege", we're highlighting three ways the Internet and advances in technology are threatening press freedoms. 

Only 8 out of 180 countries (4%) can claim to be a good environment for journalism, according to RSF's 2022 Press Freedom Index. (tweet this)

1. Online harassment of journalists 

The harassment of journalists isn't new. But the rise of digital tech and social media makes it easy for members of the public to track down journalists and harass them through email, instant messaging, social media, and doxing – sharing private or identifiable information about them online. 

In a 2020 article titled "Mob Censorship: Online Harassment of US Journalists in Times of Digital Hate and Populism", Silvio Waisbord examines how online harassment – what he calls "mob censorship" – threatens press freedom in western countries. 

The article highlights how the politics of right-wing populism drives online harassment and how "press haters" can easily network with each other online. 

It also shows how journalists are more likely to be a target for harassment when they're defined by visible markers of social identity, such as gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and religion. 

This can lead them to self-censor their work or avoid covering certain topics – or even leave the profession altogether. 

African American female reporters who covered the Trump White House have been regularly harassed with racist language. (tweet this)
Silvio Waisbord in "Mob Censorship: Online Harassment of US Journalists in Times of Digital Hate and Populism"

2. Surveillance of journalists and sources 

Before the digital revolution, monitoring people's activities and communications might have involved intercepting letters, tapping telephones, or physical observation.

Information technology now means this type of surveillance can be done on a mass scale and from any location using methods such as hacking, data interception, and installing spyware.  

Philip Di Salvo highlights the impact of digital surveillance on journalists in a 2021 article, "Investigative Journalists and Internet Surveillance". It examines the threat surveillance has on journalists' safety as well as the restrictions it puts on their work. 

Surveillance also has a significant impact on the anonymous sources and whistle-blowers that journalists rely on to investigate governments and large institutions.  

In 2021's "The End of the Affair", Anthony L. Fargo examines how mass surveillance threatens the relationships between journalists and their sources. The article also highlights how journalists can combat this threat. 

Mass surveillance is likely to be an ongoing threat to the freedom of the press, even in democracies. In France, the prime minister has the power to monitor the French population without judicial control, while Poland's 2016 surveillance law allows enforcement agencies to access citizens’ Internet and telecommunication usage data. Similar laws apply in Switzerland. 

Person carrying out surveillance using online tools

3. Censorship of digital journalism 

We've already seen how "mob censorship" can erode press freedoms. There's evidence that governments are also taking steps to censor digital journalism. 

Lambrini Papadopoulou and Theodora A. Maniou investigated threats to press freedom against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic in their study, "'Lockdown' on Digital Journalism?

Their findings included: 

  • Hungary adopting a "Coronavirus law" that allows the Government to decide whether a media report is true or false and impose prison sentences for spreading "fake news"
  • Governments imprisoning critical journalists and confiscating their equipment 
  • Governments ordering all media not to print or broadcast any "personal opinions" about COVID-19 
  • Politicians or figures in positions of high authority initiating smear campaigns against critical reporters or media outlets 
  • Countries such as India, Ethiopia, Iran, and Egypt forcing Internet service providers to slow their services to impact digital journalists' ability to send messages, share images, and watch live streams 
  • Exclusion of controversial media from state funding schemes 
  • Governments prohibiting journalists from accessing reliable sources of data and information 

The article concludes by asking, "Are we seeing a temporary 'lockdown' on digital journalism or a new normality in which press freedom will be acutely affected?" 

Most... threats [to press freedom] are aimed specifically at digital journalism... (tweet this)
Lambrini Papadopoulou and Theodora A. Maniou in "'Lockdown' on Digital Journalism? Mapping Threats to Press Freedom during the COVID-19 Pandemic Crisis"

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