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Media group warns of 'fatal danger' to democracies

Polarization fueled by Fox News-like opinion media, disinformation and propaganda is battering democracies, Reporters Without Borders said.

Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova interrupts Russian broadcast with a poster demanding an end to war in Ukraine
Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova interrupts Russia's Channel One broadcast in March with a poster demanding an end to war in Ukraine (AN/BBC/Channel One)

GENEVA (AN) — Democracies are battered by growing polarization among citizens fueled by Fox News-like opinion media and the spread of disinformation and propaganda, Reporters Without Borders said on Tuesday in a report launched to coincide with World Press Freedom Day.

At a ceremony to mark the occasion, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet warned against nations increasingly resorting to surveillance to prevent journalists from shedding light on wrongdoing.

"Rising use of surveillance tools such as the Pegasus or Candiru spyware intrudes deeply into people’s devices and lives. Such tools are an affront to the right to privacy and an obstruction to freedom of expression," she told a ceremony at Geneva's Graduate Institute that included last year's Nobel Peace Prize winners, Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov and Philippine journalist Maria Ressa.

"The use of spyware has led to arrests, intimidation and even killings of journalists. It has endangered their sources. It has put their families at risk," said Bachelet, a former president of Chile who heads the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. "To counter these risks, journalists are often forced to take the dangerous path of self-censorship. Pegasus spyware is reportedly being used in at least 45 countries, often in total secrecy and outside of any legal framework."

Pegasus is a hacking tool made by Israeli firm NSO Group, which must get permission from the Israeli government to sell it to foreign governments. It is used to turn a victim's mobile phone into a tracking and surreptitious recording device, and to remotely access and extract the mobile phone's contacts, messages, photos, video and other data without the victim first clicking on a phishing link. The firm has sold it to dozens of nations that not only use it to investigate terrorists and criminals but also to spy on activists, dissidents and journalists.

At a time when Russia's war in Ukraine has highlighted clear fault lines between the world's democracies and authoritarian regimes, the global journalism organization known by its French acronym RSF described the 2022 edition of its World Press Freedom Index — a sweeping assessment of journalism in 180 nations and territories — as a portrait of a world adrift, its democracies endangered from within and without, possibly sliding towards a dystopian future.

Paris-based RSF's Secretary-General Christophe Deloire recalled the sentiment of Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of RT (the former Russia Today), who said on a Russia One TV broadcast that no great nation can exist without control over information. "The creation of media weaponry in authoritarian countries eliminates their citizens’ right to information but is also linked to the rise in international tension, which can lead to the worst kind of wars," said Deloire.

"Domestically, the ‘Fox News-ization’ of the media poses a fatal danger for democracies, because it undermines the basis of civil harmony and tolerant public debate," he said. "Urgent decisions are needed in response to these issues, promoting a New Deal for Journalism, as proposed by the Forum on Information and Democracy, and adopting an appropriate legal framework, with a system to protect democratic online information spaces.”

The 'Fox News-ization' of the media

RSF noted that a propaganda war preceded Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February; China sequestered its population through its autocratic "legislative arsenal"; and a lack of press freedom in the Middle East continues to affect conflicts between Israelis, Palestinians and Arab countries.

In the United States and France, it said, media polarization fueled by social and opinion media outlets inflames social and political tensions.

"Within democratic societies, divisions are growing as a result of the spread of opinion media following the 'Fox News model' and the spread of disinformation circuits that are amplified by the way social media functions," RSF said.

"At the international level, democracies are being weakened by the asymmetry between open societies and despotic regimes that control their media and online platforms while waging propaganda wars against democracies," it said. "Polarization on these two levels is fueling increased tension."

The top 10 best nations for press freedom are Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Portugal, Costa Rica, Lithuania and Lichtenstein, according to RSF, which ranks the United States in 42nd place.

Belarus and Russia, which both attacked Ukraine, are in the 153rd and 155th rankings, respectively. The top 10 worst nations in RSF's index are North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Turkmenistan, Myanmar, China, Vietnam, Cuba, Iraq and Syria.

Ressa said Russian President Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine depends on his two-decade disinformation campaign that recently includes outlawing independent journalists, shutting down independent media outlets, and barring social media platforms.

"Without facts you cannot have truth. Without truth you cannot have trust. Without trust we have no shared reality," she said. "No rule of law. No democracy. Journalists, human rights defenders, anyone under attack — anyone can be targeted. We are all defenseless in information warfare."

This year's index uses a new method of ranking nations based on the work of seven academic and media experts who weighed five main indicators: economics, law, politics, security and sociocultural factors.

Though the work was mostly completed by January, some updates were made in March to reflect what was happening in Mali, Russia and Ukraine.

Press freedom is defined as “the effective possibility for journalists, as individuals and as groups, to select, produce and disseminate news and information in the public interest, independently from political, economic, legal and social interference, and without threats to their physical and mental safety.”