2014 Press Freedom Index spotlights major declines in USA, CAR, Guatemala
The same trio of Finland, Netherlands and Norway heads the index again, while Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea continue to be the biggest information black holes, again occupying the last three positions.
"The World Press Freedom Index is a reference tool that is based on seven criteria: the level of abuses, the extent of pluralism, media independence, the environment and self-censorship, the legislative framework, transparency and infrastructure," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire.
"It makes governments face their responsibilities by providing civil society with an objective measure, and provides international bodies with a good governance indicator to guide their decisions."
Reporters Without Borders head of research Lucie Morillon said: "This year, the ranking of some countries, including democracies, has been impacted by an overly broad and abusive interpretation of the concept of national security protection.
"The index also reflects the negative impact of armed conflicts on freedom of information and its actors. The world's most dangerous country for journalists, Syria, is ranked 177th out of 180 countries."
The index's annual global indicator, which measures the overall level of violations of freedom of information in 180 countries year by year, has risen slightly. The indicator has gone from 3395 to 3456 points, a 1.8% rise. The level of violations is unchanged in the Asia-Pacific region, but has increased in Africa.
The index is available in print for the first time. An enhanced version is being published (in French) by the French publishing house Flammarion in its Librio collection. The index, together with regional and thematic analyses, continues to be available in English, French and other languages on the Reporters Without Borders website. Reporters Without Borders has also introduced a three-dimensional visualization of the performances of the 180 ranked countries.
This year's index covers 180 countries, one more than the 179 countries covered in last year's index. The newcomer is Belize, which has been ranked in the enviable position of 29th.
Armed conflicts, political instability and national security
The 2014 index emphasizes the negative correlation between armed conflicts and freedom of information. In an unstable environment, the media become strategic goals or targets for groups or individuals trying to control news and information in violation of the guarantees enshrined in international conventions.
Syria (177th) is rubbing shoulders with the last three countries in the index. Around 130 professional and citizen-journalists were killed in connection with the provision of news and information from March 2011 to December 2013. They are being targeted by both the Assad government and extremist rebel militias. The Syrian crisis has also had dramatic repercussions throughout the region.
In Africa, Mali continued its fall and is now ranked 122nd. Progress in the conflict in north of the country has stalled, preventing any real revival in media activity. Central African Republic (109th) has followed suit, falling 43 places. In Egypt (159th), President Morsi's ouster by the army led by Al-Sisi freed those media that the Muslim Brotherhood had gagged ever since coming to power, but it marked the start of a witchhunt against journalists suspected of supporting the Brotherhood.
Far from these conflicts, in countries where the rule of law prevails, security arguments are misused as grounds for restricting freedom of information. Invoked too readily, the protection of national security is encroaching on hard-won democratic rights.
In the United States (46th, -13), the hunt for leaks and whistleblowers serves as a warning to those thinking of satisfying a public interest need for information about the imperial prerogatives assumed by the world's leading power. The United Kingdom (33rd, -3) has followed in the US wake, distinguishing itself by its harassment of The Guardian.
There are many examples of governments abusing the "fight against terrorism." In Turkey (154th), dozens of journalists have been detained on this pretext, above all those who cover the Kurdish issue.
In Israel (96th), which regained some of the places it lost in the previous index because of Operation Pillar of Defence's impact on freedom of information, the territorial integrity imperative often suppresses freedom of information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In Sri Lanka (165th, - 2), the army shapes the news by suppressing accounts that stray too far from the official vision of "pacification" in the former Tamil separatist strongholds.
A few noteworthy developments
Central Africa Republic, currently the site of a violent conflict, suffered the biggest fall, losing 43 places after a year marked by extreme violence and repeated attacks and threats against journalists.
Aside from the 13-place fall by the United States (46th, -13), Guatemala's dizzying plunge (125th, -29) was due to a sharp decline in the safety of journalists, with four murders and twice as many attacks as the previous year.
In Kenya (90th, -18), the government's much criticized authoritarian response to the media's coverage of the Westgate Mall attack was compounded by dangerous parliamentary initiatives. Chad (139th) fell 17 places after distinguishing itself by abusive arrests and prosecutions in 2013.
Suffering from the effects of the economic crisis and a surge in populism, Greece (99th) fell 14 places.
Violence against journalists, direct censorship and misuse of judicial proceedings fell in Panama (87th, +25), Dominican Republic (68th, +13), Bolivia (94th, +16) and Ecuador (94th, +25), although in Ecuador the level of media polarization is still high and often detrimental to public debate.
The past year was marked by laudable legislative developments in some countries such as South Africa (42nd, +11), where the president refused to sign a law that would have threatened media freedom.
Contrasting with South Africa's improvement, other countries regarded as regional models registered no progress or even significant declines.