Fiona O’Brien, UK Bureau Director for Reporters Without Borders

May 16, 2023

Welcome to Trusted Journalism Matters, our new series in which we chat to World Media Group members about the importance of quality journalism. Here, Belinda chats to Fiona O’Brien, the UK Bureau Chief for Reporters Without Borders, also known as Reporters Sans Frontières (RFS), about the 2023 World Press Freedom Index.

Reporters Without Borders is the World Media Group’s charity partner. The following is an extract from the conversation covering:

  • The best and worst environments for journalism based on the 2023 World Press Freedom Index – including how the UK and US rank
  • The effect AI generated content is having on quality journalism
  • The risk of danger to journalists in the field.

You can watch the full interview in the video above or listen to the podcast here.

The 2023 World Press Freedom Index shows the environment for journalism is bad in seven out of 10 countries around the world and satisfactory in only three out of 10. Were you surprised by those numbers?

It is a shocking statistic, but I can’t say it was entirely surprising, sadly, because we’re monitoring all year round, working with individual journalists and media organisations around the globe. We’re very aware of these problems. The index only comes out once a year but we’re watching and analysing all year long.

The range of challenges facing journalists today is huge. The most obvious are physical threats to their safety. Terribly sadly, just yesterday, a French journalist became the 10th journalist to be killed in Ukraine since that conflict began. The ninth, a man called Bogdan Bitik, was killed only a couple of weeks ago, at the end of April. So that’s one example of a very deadly conflict for journalists.

Since the year 2000, 1,797 journalists worldwide have been killed while doing their jobs – the statistics are horrendous.

Another problem is the imprisonment of people for trying to hold power to account, like the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich who was wrongfully detained by Russia. As of May 2023, there are currently 562 journalists and media workers in prison around the world. In China alone, there are more than a hundred journalists in prison. It’s a very convenient way, for authorities to try and silence journalism using all sorts of pretexts. It’s often national security laws or, in Evan’s case, it’s accusations of espionage – this idea of collusion with foreign elements. All sorts of flabby laws are brought into play, or even sometimes completely random laws.

The risk of imprisonment or the risk of death are two of the huge things that we work with. Beyond that, there’s growing online harassment of journalists around the world. Social divides within democracies – there’s real partisanship – has become increasingly problematic and linked very much to that online harassment.

It’s a very difficult economic climate for journalists worldwide. As old funding models stopped working, it’s been harder in the digital age for journalism to find ways to survive. And often, there’s just a general feeling of animosity towards journalists, lack of trust, sometimes even hatred. So, all those things come together to create a difficult climate for journalists in many parts of the world, reflected in the number of countries which are now coloured red on our map.

One of focuses of the report is around fake news and AI generated content. Can you tell us a little more about that?

One of the things that came through strongly on our Index was what a concern AI is right around the world. The Index includes a qualitative element where we ask experts to answer an extensive questionnaire. This year, in 118 out of the 180 countries which were surveyed, most respondents in 118 countries said that they were concerned about AI, and that the volume of disinformation – and the way disinformation was being used systematically by those in positions of power – was alarming.

We know it’s a growing problem and, as technology advances, it becomes easier and quicker to create fake images, fake news, and also much quicker to send them around the world. That means it’s very difficult for audiences to understand whether they’re looking at something that’s true or false; something manufactured or something real. It’s a very pressing problem that industry leaders need to grapple with.

The Scandinavian countries do exceptionally well year-on-year within your Index. How are they combatting this?

If we look at Norway which has come first in the Index for the seventh year – and the rest of the Scandinavian region is always right up there in the green zone as well – it’s not that they don’t face the same challenges. These big questions like AI, the digital landscape, online harassment, economic problems are, to a certain extent, universal.

It’s more about the way that they handle them and the climate that they create around journalism to ensure that good, ethical, robust, independent, reliable journalism can still happen. In Norway, for example, there’s a strong legal framework safeguarding the right of journalists to function independently and report freely.

The media market itself, is very vibrant. There’s a strong public service broadcaster, NRK, but there’s also a diversified private sector, so we don’t see the concentration of ownership, which can be problematic in other countries. By and large, politicians, don’t tend to label coverage they don’t like as fake news. They accept that there can be critical coverage; they don’t disparage its authors,

It doesn’t mean that there are no problems in Norway. While there are very few instances recorded, there is violence against journalists that are reported threats. Online harassment doesn’t know borders. But overall, the society and the state encourage independent journalism and encourage the exchange of ideas.

To give us contrast, where does the UK sit on the list?

The UK sits at 26 this year – it dropped two places from 24. In a global context, although it’s not nearly as high as we’d like it to be, it’s still in the satisfactory zone. We’re not talking about problems anywhere near the scale of China, Iran, or North Koreas at the other end of the list.

That said, it is at 26 and that shows us that there are various problems that need resolving; things that are slightly worrying for us in terms of how media are able to function. Parts of the problems are legislative – there are some new laws coming through Parliament which don’t contain what we would consider robust protections for journalists.

One example of that is the National Security Bill currently in the process of becoming law. Through that parliamentary process, thanks to a lot of campaigning from us and many others, there has been some recognition that journalists need to be protected in some way within it. But even so, the changes brought to the law aren’t strong enough to ensure that the law couldn’t be abused in future.

The law, as it currently stands, opens journalists up (especially journalists working for foreign-owned medium) to be accused of endangering national security or even espionage, just for going about their investigative work so it’s not protective enough.

The US has dropped three places since Biden took over as President, which seems surprising.

Yes, the US is down. It’s still in the satisfactory zone, but much lower, at 45, having dropped from 42. The arrival of Biden has changed the tone of debate to some extent. There’s a lot less animosity coming from the top level of government than during the Trump administration, but there are many problems in the US for journalists.

There’s a very partisan media. There are a lot of economic problems, a lot of layoffs, a lot of anti-media bills are being brought in, especially at local level. These bills are making it harder for journalists to report critically on those in power; making it easier to be sued, for example, or increasing the risk of legal action against journalists who try and hold power to account. So again, that lack of legislative safeguard.

Two journalists died in the US doing their job in the last year, which has a big impact on the ranking. Last September, a journalist called Jeff German was shot outside his home in Las Vegas. He’d done a lot of reporting on misconduct of those in office. And then in February this year, a journalist called Dylan Lyons was killed while reporting on a homicide.

The US government is still seeking the extradition of Julian Assange, who is currently in prison in the UK, for his revelations of US war crimes in Iraq and elsewhere, which is a clear case of a government trying to punish the publisher rather than punish the perpetrator of the crime. All these things add up to make quite a difficult climate still for journalism in the US.

Going back to AI, what can quality international news sources like the WMG brands do to ensure that trusted journalism is recognised over AI-generated content?

It’s difficult because not only does AI, and other technologies, give us the ability to create increasingly sophisticated fake content very quickly, it is often used to distort real content. So, you have something that was in essence true, but has been changed.

AI also enables algorithms, which don’t tend to prioritise quality but prioritise those who shout the loudest or those who are the most outraged, so it’s difficult for quality journalism to cut through sometimes.

At RSF we’re championing an initiative called the Journalism Trust Initiative, which is aimed specifically at this problem. It’s a way for quality media to self-certify. They go through an audit process initially internally, and then there’s an external audit, which gives them the ability to show that they use robust news gathering methods and can be trusted and reliable.

Can you tell us in real terms how Reporters Without Borders supports journalism and what you do for journalists in danger on the ground?

We do a lot of work with international bodies and with national and local governments, to try and solve these big problems that we’ve touched on today.

In Ukraine for example, during the conflict there, we’ve been providing huge amounts of flack jackets and training and helmets, and things to physically help journalists, and insurance policies for independent journalists – so it can be really practical things like that.

We also offer emergency help for journalists whose lives are in danger in places like Afghanistan or Iran. When journalists are imprisoned, we do a huge amount of work to try and secure their release. That can be working with families, lawyers and working with governments to try and get them to engage.

It’s usually a mixture of campaigning, which will be visible, plus a lot of advocacy behind the scenes. And it does work – in March a French journalist, Olivier Dubois, was freed after being held hostage for 711 days, and we’d been campaigning for nearly two years.

We look at every case individually and see what’s most needed and what’s the best approach, the number one priority being to ensure the safety of the person themselves.

Finally, how can people help to support the brilliant work you do?

Some of the WMG members have been supporting us with space to be able to publicise things we’re doing, which is enormously valuable because raising awareness is obviously central to the work we do.

On an individual level, we’re a not-for-profit organisation, so we rely on the generosity of donors. Financial donations are always very welcome through the ‘make a donation’ button on our central website.

The last thing I’d say is, for those of us who are lucky enough to live in democracies, make your voice heard; engage yourself. If you care about a particular case or about press freedom generally, make that known to your MP if you’re in the UK or your representative wherever else you are.

As citizens, it’s all of our responsibility to make sure that governments understand that we care about press freedom, and that we understand that press freedom is all of our freedom. Without the ability of the press to hold power to account, to report on what’s actually happening in the corridors of power, it’s impossible for us to understand what’s being done on our behalf. It’s citizens in the end who lose out if information isn’t freely available.

If you’d like to read more about the Index, you can find a summary of the report here with a link to the full report on the Reporters Without Border’s website.