UK Rises in Press Freedom Ranking but Climate Remains Worrying

The UK has risen seven places in the Reporters Without Borders 2019 World Press Freedom Index, published today. Ranking 33rd out of 180 countries, the UK has improved from its 2018 ranking of 40th. However, the UK remains one of the worst-performing countries in Western Europe.

RSF welcomed some positive steps in the UK in 2018, including the statement in March by then-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Matt Hancock that Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 – which contains a threatening cost-shifting provision – would not be implemented. However, they warned that national security, surveillance, and data protection legislation remained concerning. 

RSF UK bureau director Rebecca Vincent cautioned: “We saw a number of worrying trends continue this year particularly things related to national security, surveillance, data protection that just slow steadily making it more difficult for journalists here to do their job properly, particularly journalists working on sensitive investigative work.

“We’d like to see a more proactive approach by parliament to ensure that further draft legislation doesn’t continue to erode press freedom in this country. They are often things that may not immediately be obviously linked to press freedom but impact on press freedom and the ability of journalist to do their jobs.”

 “We are encouraged by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s new media freedom campaign, as the UK plays an important standard-setting role internationally. We hope this commitment to championing these important issues abroad will in turn result in greater vigilance to our own press freedom climate, and lead to improvements in our areas of shortcoming here in the UK.”

Speaking at the launch of the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, John Whittingdale MP said: “Media and press freedom is an absolute pillar of free society. We need a free media if democracy is to function properly, voters are to be informed about the performance of the bodies to which they are about to elect representatives. We need media to hold government to account. Sometimes it is painful for government. And if you have a vibrant free media it is almost their job to ensure that government is not entirely happy about the coverage it gets. And having been in government I can tell you I wasn’t always happy about some of the coverage that I got, but that is part of living in a free society.

“I am delighted that the UK has moved up the Index, but nevertheless we should be a lot higher than we are. A particular area, I as secretary of state was responsible for, which did not make me popular in some quarters, but I took the decision to not implement the cost provision of Section 40 which would have inflicted punitive damages on publications unless they decided or agreed to sign up to the government’s approved regulator. That seemed to me to be a step too far towards government interference into press freedom, so I did not implement it and I am delighted that my predecessors have continued that policy and indeed have talked about repealing section 40.”