Systemic censorship in the East
In 2022, the war in Ukraine enabled the Kremlin to begin a final “purge” of the Russian media landscape. Systemic censorship and the forced exodus of independent Russian and foreign media outlets have freed up space for the dissemination of coordinated propaganda by pro-government media. The ban on western social media has benefitted Telegram, a platform whose users in Russia (164th) have more than doubled in one year. It is the method that independent media most use to circumvent censorship, but it has also been invaded by Putin’s propaganda networks, with some Telegram channels even tracking the movements of foreign journalists regarded as spies.
In Ukraine (79th), the Kremlin's propaganda apparatus is deployed at great speed whenever the Russian forces conquer new territory – TV channels are jammed, Ukrainian media are replaced, and local journalists are hunted down. Journalists enjoy greater freedom in the free zones, despite the turmoil in the news media, the difficulties associated with covering a country at war, and reporting restrictions that, for the most part, are proportionate to the situation. The war and the spirit of national unity have reduced the oligarchs’ hold on the media and the pressures that were due to divisions.
The Russian invasion has overshadowed the entire region, especially Belarus (157th), which is now under Russia’s control. The Index has been impacted by a marked deterioration in the press freedom situation in Central Asia, with a remarkable 50-place drop by Kyrgyzstan (122nd).
The delicate balance between freedom and security in the West
The war in Ukraine has also affected western Europe, which sometimes struggles to find a balance between security and freedom. Several countries have restricted journalistic work under the pretext of “national security”. In Greece (107th), spying on journalists by the intelligence agencies and by means of the Predator spyware represented the biggest press freedom violation in the European Union in 2022 and explains why Greece has the lowest ranking of any EU country in the 2023 index. In Albania (96th), the prosecutor’s office imposed disproportionate restrictions on journalistic coverage of a cyber-attack of Iranian origin. In the United Kingdom (26th), where Julian Assange is still awaiting his extradition, investigative journalism is threatened by a national security bill that lacks protective measures. In Latvia (16th), the media regulator arbitrarily revoked an independent Russian channel’s media licence. In Finland (5th), two journalists were convicted of revealing state secrets while new legislation in Sweden (4th) has undermined the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.
Despite these troubling issues, the gap in the rankings among EU member countries has narrowed significantly. In this region, there are twice as many countries that have risen in the 2023 Index as there are that have fallen. This, just as the EU is discussing unprecedented legislation that would establish common press freedom standards. Moreover, the rise in the Index by most of the EU’s eastern members goes hand in hand with the realisation that independent reporting can serve as a bulwark against Kremlin propaganda. Serbia (91st), where pro-government media disseminate Russian propaganda, suffered the biggest drop (-12) in the EU-Balkans region.