Press freedom is vital for independent public media to effectively provide impartial, fact checked and quality news, holding power to account and informing citizens, especially during an election period.

But as journalist safety continues to decline and more governments tighten their grip on the media, what impact is this having on public service media (PSM) worldwide?

Once again, the latest World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) makes for grim reading. From the United States to Ghana and South Africa, countries regarded as having comparably consolidated democracies have experienced a fall in their media freedom rankings. But look a little deeper and many of those that have seen “no change”, or an improvement in their rankings, have experienced a loss in their global score.

In most cases, a decline in press freedom will have a significant impact on the ability of public media organisations to fulfil their mandates and maintain a high level of trust. From pledges to cut federal funding in the USA to political interference and threats to media independence in parts of Europe and Australia, the challenges facing public media are increasingly felt in regions where press freedom was once considered to be more secure.   

For this year’s World Press Freedom Day, we have highlighted some of the most glaring issues.


Populist rhetoric continues to play a dramatic role in shaping media environments around the world, particularly in the USA, which fell three places to 48/180 in RSF’s 2019 Index. Verbal attacks such as those used by Donald Trump – denouncing the press as an “enemy of the American people” – and others in the highest level of government, have significantly contributed to a rise in violence towards journalists and the risk of arrest for those covering protests or “attempting to ask public officials questions”.

Of course, such an environment has an impact on those working for America’s public media organisations. But the threat of revoking broadcast licences is another way to silence critics. For America’s public media, the latest federal budget poses a significant threat, proposing to cut all but $30million in federal funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This would not only affect the quality of local news and content, but remove a much needed safeguard to the independence of US public media, forcing them the rely more heavily on commercial and philanthropic support.

In Denmark – a country in the top five for media freedom worldwide – reforms announced by the ruling right-wing coalition will lead to significant funding cuts and the loss of up to 400 jobs at public broadcaster DR. The reforms have been interpreted as a cynical attempt to further marginalise DR, its editorial independence and its role in holding power to account. It has also been interpreted as a direct challenge to the “arms length” role of the government.

Overt interference

Elsewhere, political interference has been more overt. In Central Europe, the heavy hand of governments on independent media outlets continues to be felt, from the concentration of media control and ownership by those in the pockets of Hungary’s Prime Minister Obán, to the ongoing consolidation of government control in Poland, which has effectively turned the country’s public broadcaster into mouthpiece of the state.

In Croatia, the Croatian Journalists’ Association (HND) has accused the government of meddling with the public broadcaster’s (HRT) editorial policy and internal operations. Croatia also has strong defamation laws, which have been used by the public broadcaster to sue its own employees for denouncing “a climate of censorship” and “political pressure” within the organisation. In fact this, along with growing assaults and the intimidation of journalists online, are the main obstacles to press freedom in the country.

Safety of journalists

Violence and insecurity continues to grow for journalists and media workers worldwide. Last year, 95 journalists were killed globally during the course of their work and five have already been killed this year in Ghana, Honduras, the UK, Libya, and Mexico according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. This, coupled with a significant growth in threats and arbitrary detentions – an estimated 250 journalists were jailed in 2018 – has fueled concerns for a broadening of self censorship, especially where journalists can be arrested on the grounds of so called “fake news”. Turkey continues to have the highest number of journalists in jail.

Self-censorship has serious consequences for investigative journalism and democracy, where unnerved reporters consciously or unconsciously shy away from covering topics based on the fear of reprisals. The Public Media Alliance and its members in the Pacific region are particularly concerned about self-censorship in Tonga, where politicians have sued media outlets and increased government control over state broadcaster, the Tonga Broadcasting Commission (TBC). Last year, two senior editors were removed from their post due to pressure from the government.

Of course, self-censorship is most commonly found in authoritarian countries such as China, Turkmenistan and Vietnam, or those with weaker institutional support for media freedom, as has been widely reported across Southern Africa. But increasingly, it is also appearing in countries at the top end of the index. In Estonia, two high-profile journalists left the public broadcaster ERR this week over claims that the government pushed for greater self-censorship amongst the broadcaster’s staff, while Sweden’s public radio, Sveriges Radio, can receive up to “ten threats or hate speech incidents every day” through social media, emails or telephone calls, according to its CEO.

It’s a global issue

Threats to secure funding, independence and impartiality – these are just some of the many press freedom issues facing public media. But what is clear is that these issues are of a global concern. PSM is indeed most effective where the press is most free, but even high scoring countries such as those in Scandinavia are dealing with issues of journalist safety and political interference.

Yet regardless of the challenges, public media still holds a crucial role in upholding democracy and freedom of expression, especially when part of a plural media landscape. Even if the sector is suffering from a plethora of threats, well resourced public service media provides citizens with essential information that contributes to better understanding of politics and public affairs – especially in times of election.

PSM is essential to democracy and public debate but it is also reliant on political and public will for it to survive. It needs to be independent and exist in an environment where its journalists are able to effectively report and hold power to account. In fact, it requires every facet that underpins media freedom to be in place, something that is becoming increasingly difficult to ensure. With this in mind, it is now more than ever that public media organisations and their supporters must work together to find solutions.

Header image: Empty television studio with camera. Image: Grafissimo/iStock