Journalists in the UK are less free to hold power to account than those working in South Africa, Chile or Lithuania, according to an index of press freedom around the world.
Laws permitting generalised surveillance, as well as a proposal for a new espionage act that could criminalise journalists and whistleblowers as spies, were cited by Reporters Without Borders as it knocked the UK down two places from last year, to 40th out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index.
In the past five years, the UK has slipped 12 places down the index. Rebecca Vincent, RSF’s UK bureau director, said this year’s ranking would have been worse were it not for a general decline in press freedom around the world, making journalists in Britain comparatively better off than those in countries such as Turkey and Syria.
“Donald Trump’s rise to power in the United States and the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom were marked by high-profile media bashing, a highly toxic anti-media discourse that drove the world into a new era of post-truth, disinformation and fake news,” RSF said in a statement.
The organisation’s secretary general, Christophe Deloire, added: “The rate at which democracies are approaching the tipping point is alarming for all those who understand that if media freedom is not secure, then none of the other freedoms can be guaranteed.”
Among the concerns raised by RSF was the passage of the UK’s “menacing” Investigatory Powers Act last November, which met only token resistance within parliament, despite giving UK intelligence agencies and police the most sweeping surveillance powers in the western world.
In February, Downing Street distanced itself from a proposal by the Law Commission for a new espionage act that would increase the maximum jail term for whistleblowers leaking sensitive information from two to 14 years, as well as widening the definition of espionage to potentially include journalistic work.
A No 10 source described the plan as the project of a “previous prime minister”after it was branded a “full-frontal attack” on whistleblowers.
However, Vincent said she feared the proposal could be revived if the Conservative party won a renewed mandate in the forthcoming general election. “This government, especially if it comes out of the election stronger and they are making moves against the Human Rights Act, those are really alarming markers that we will continue this downward spiral.”
Responding to the news, Jim Killock, the executive director of the Open Rights Group, said: “Extensive surveillance powers are threatening investigative journalism and freedom of expression in the UK. In just four years, the UK has fallen 10 places in the World Press Freedom Index – a deeply worrying trend that needs to be addressed.
“The government failed to protect journalists when it passed the Investigatory Powers Act. Now, the Law Commission has proposed to send them to prison if they so much as handle official data. This comes at a time when we must be able to hold the government to account over its vast surveillance powers … Mass surveillance chills freedom of expression and undermines democracy.”
The Home Office was unable to comment because of pre-election purdah rules.