In just one year, Estonia has climbed 11 spots from 15th to 4th in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index rankings published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Tuesday.
Topping RSF's rankings of 180 countries this year was Norway, followed by Denmark and Sweden. Estonia and Finland ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, with scores falling just short of Sweden's.
Elsewhere in the region, Lithuania ranked ninth, Latvia 22nd, and Poland 66th this year.
Of major Western countries, Germany was ranked 16th, the U.K. 24th, France 26th and the U.S. 42nd.
Commenting on the situation in the U.S., RSF noted that despite the new presidential administration taking office last year, the polarization of the media there continues to feed and strengthen domestic social divides.
Ukraine was ranked 106th, down from 97th last year.
Belarus, meanwhile, was ranked 153rd and Russia 155th, down from 150th last year. RSF noted that both Ukraine and Russia's drops in the rankings were the result of the propaganda war waged prior to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Today on #WorldPressFreedomDay we pay tribute to journalists. Bitterly, this year has brought us already sad news about many journalists being killed & wounded. Russia's war against has claimed the lives of 7⃣ journalists while they were reporting on Russia's invasion.— Eva-Maria Liimets (@eliimets) May 3, 2022
Ranked last in press freedom this year were North Korea, Eritrea and Iran.
Spread of 'Fox News model' sowing division
In the foreword to the 2022 edition of the World Press Freedom Index, which assessed the state of journalism in 180 countries and territories worldwide, RSF "highlights the disastrous effects of news and information chaos — the effects of a globalized and unregulated online information space that encourages fake news and propaganda."
The international NGO also noted that divisions within democratic societies are growing as a result of the spread of opinion media following the "Fox News model" and the spread of disinformation, which in turn is amplified by social media.
At the international level, RSF also highlighted concern regarding authoritarian regimes that control their media and online platforms while simultaneously waging propaganda wars against democracies.
Media situation in Estonia
In its overview of the current media landscape in Estonia, RSF noted that, subject to consolidation over the last decade, the Estonian media market now features two major media houses — Postimees Group and Ekspress Group — the public broadcaster ERR, local media as well as several independent online outlets.
It also highlighted Estonia's Russian-speaking media, which includes ETV+, public and private radio stations and independent websites and caters to the Russian-speaking minority accounting for a quarter of the country's population.
RSF's report noted that the owners of the two major media groups also have stakes in other business sectors, and that the country's private media is operating within a small market with limited access to funding, which in turn forces them to seek new sources of revenue, including organizing events. ERR's budget is also noted to be increasingly limited, currently standing at 0.14 percent of GDP, and can be subject to political influence.
Estonia's political environment, meanwhile, was described as relatively neutral toward journalism, "which has contributed to journalists being able to hold politicians accountable without fear of persecution."
While media freedom in Estonia is guaranteed by the Constitution, legislation protecting against defamation and the disclosure of private data nonetheless restricts it. "While the fear of defamation lawsuits may lead to self-censorship, the laws protecting private data have recently become a pretext of Estonian authorities to increasingly restrict media's access to public information," RSF writes.
The NGO's report did not identify any long-term cultural or societal constraints preventing journalists in Estonia from doing their job. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, "the media were accused by part of the population of complacency with the authorities and pharmaceutical companies," as a result of which journalists suffered verbal attacks both on- and offline.
Regarding the safety of journalists in Estonia, RSF noted that while physical attacks against them have been extremely rare, "journalists have been exposed to a growing number of online threats by private individuals, the most severe cases being reported to the police and investigated."
While media houses have deployed measures to better protect them, "in the context of lacking systematic psychological assistance, cyberbullying may have a self-censorship effect on journalists."
Minister: Countering Russia's information war crucial
Commenting on Estonia's fourth place ranking in this year's world index, Minister of Foreign Affairs Eva-Maria Liimets (Center) said that Estonia has a leading role in defending media freedom in the world, and it also considers it crucial to counter Russia's information war against Ukraine, according to a press release.
A global conference on media freedom organized by Estonia was held in Tallinn in February, which involved close cooperation with RSF. Speakers at the conference included Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitri Muratov, who spoke about the increasingly limited opportunities for the free media to operate in Russia.
"Exactly two weeks later, Russia began its full-scale war against Ukraine, having attempted to lay the groundwork with propaganda, disinformation and various elements of hybrid war for a long time prior," Liimets noted.
The media is also being used to hide and distort the truth in Russia about the horrors of war and crimes against humanity being committed in Ukraine, she said, noting that the media in Russia is not allowed to call it a war.
According to RSF, seven journalists have been killed and 11 injured in Ukraine since February 24.
Editor: Aili Vahtla