(CNN) - Journalists are battling a rising tide of hatred, violence and persecution around the world, an international watchdog has warned, as authoritarian regimes clamp down on press freedom and leading democracies including the United States slide down the global rankings.
Releasing its annual Press Freedom Index after a tumultuous 12 months for the media, Reporters Without Borders sounded the alarm over an "intense climate of fear" for reporters, and condemned attacks on press outlets by world leaders including Donald Trump.
The US slid three places to 48th in their global rankings, dropping below Botswana, Chile and Romania and entering the category of "problematic" regions for press freedom. Norway claimed the top spot for the third consecutive year, ahead of Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands, and North Korea climbed off the bottom of the table.
The index painted a dire scene for the profession, illustrating an overall decline in journalistic independence and safety around the world in 2018. Just one in four countries were labeled as having a good or satisfactory situation for the media, while journalists face a difficult or very serious situation in 71 nations, the rankings showed.
"It's a really worrying picture," Rebecca Vincent, director of the UK bureau of Reporters Without Borders -- also known by its French acronym, RSF -- told CNN. "It's never been a more dangerous time to be a journalist, and press freedom has never been under greater attack than it is now."
The murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia's consulate in Turkey, the arrest of two Reuters journalists in Myanmar and the targeting of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa in the Philippines headlined a series of high-profile cases of violence or persecution against reporters in 2018.
And Vincent highlighted the global spread of suppression and violence against journalists, which has crept into corners of the world previously considered safer havens. "It's not just the places anymore that are traditionally thought of as being hostile, it's everywhere now -- including democracies," she said.
Just 15 countries, 11 of them European, were classed as maintaining a good situation for journalists. At the other end of the table, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan fell, and Turkmenistan slumped to the bottom.
Americas and European nations fall
Europe is "no longer a sanctuary for journalists," RSF said, following the murders of reporters in Malta, Slovakia and Bulgaria.
The governments of Italy, Poland and Bulgaria were criticized for targeting journalists through threats or legislation, while the group raised concern over retribution against investigative reporters by organized crime figures.
The UK rose seven places to 33rd, one spot below France, while Germany rose two places to 13th -- but their improvements were partly influenced by the dramatic falls of Central and Eastern European countries including Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, RSF said.
Hatred of the media was called "a leading characteristic of the angry 'Gilets Jaunes' (Yellow Vest) protests in France," and Poland's populist government was criticized for turning state-owned media "into its mouthpiece."
North and South America saw the biggest regional decline, dragged down by the poor performances of the US, Brazil and Venezuela. Nicaragua dropped by 24 places after physical attacks on journalists covering protests against President Daniel Ortega's government.
The governments of Italy, Poland and Bulgaria were also criticized for targeting journalists through threats or legislation.
Several authoritarian regimes, including Russia and China, fell in the rankings, and the Central African Republic saw the largest single-year drop, falling 33 places to 145, after three Russian journalists were killed in the volatile country.
But more positive news came from Ethiopia, which rose by 40 spots after bringing its longstanding war with neighbor Eritrea to an end.
Trump's rhetoric condemned as threats rise
RSF had previously warned that 2018 was a deadly year for journalists, with 80 killed around the world.
The US joined the list of the most dangerous countries for journalists last year, following the shooting at the Capital Gazette in Maryland that killed five people.
And RSF rounded on Donald Trump, whose anti-media rhetoric -- including in the aftermath of the shooting -- was blamed for partially fueling the rises in violence and hostility.
"Amid one of the American journalism community's darkest moments, President Trump continued to spout his notorious anti-press rhetoric, disparaging and attacking the media at a national level," the group said. "Simultaneously, journalists across the country reported terrifying harassment and death threats, online and in person."
"Never before have US journalists been subjected to so many death threats or turned so often to private security firms for protection," they added.
Trump's election and presidency have helped create a "strongman model" that has reverberated around the world and fueled an increase in violence, Vincent said. "The heavy-headed approach towards the media, and the media-bashing rhetoric, it matters ... these politicians bear some responsibility for this violent climate."
Bomb threats were sent to newsrooms in the US last year and a BBC cameraman was attacked in February at a rally held by Trump, who frequently lambasts individual news outlets on Twitter and in interviews.
"If the political debate slides surreptitiously or openly towards a civil war-style atmosphere, in which journalists are treated as scapegoats, then democracy is in great danger," RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said in a statement.
Trump's downplaying of his intelligence agencies' conclusions over Khashoggi's murder, as well as the lack of international sanctions against Saudi Arabia, were criticized. The CIA has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally ordered the killing, according to sources, while the Saudi government denies involvement.
"So far there have not been serious political consequences for Saudi Arabia," Vincent said. "We haven't seen any action beyond the rhetorical level."
But Vincent praised "courageous individuals" carrying out reporting in a dangerous climate, and noted that such cases have led to a greater discussion about the role of the media. "If there is a silver lining, there is a recognition now of the importance of press freedom and the importance of courageous investigative journalism," she said.
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