PARIS (Reuters) - Western political leaders encouraging hostility towards the media are playing with fire and posing an increasing threat to democracies, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) warned on Wednesday in its annual index of press freedom.
Growing animosity towards journalists is no longer limited to authoritarian countries such as Turkey and Egypt, the Paris-based group said, citing the United States under President Donald Trump, which has fallen two places to 45th this year.
"The unleashing of hatred towards journalists is one of the worst threats to democracies," RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said in a statement.
"Political leaders who fuel loathing for reporters bear heavy responsibility because they undermine the concept of public debate based on facts instead of propaganda. To dispute the legitimacy of journalism today is to play with extremely dangerous political fire."
Trump's attacks on the media in response to critical stories about him have been a staple of his Twitter feed and he tweeted in February 2017 that "the fake news media" was "the enemy of the American people".
But verbal violence from politicians against the media is also on the rise in Europe, RSF said.
It cited the Czech Republic, down 11 places at 34th, where President Milos Zeman turned up at a news conference with a fake Kalashnikov inscribed with the words "for journalists", and Slovakia, down 10 places at 27th, where then Prime Minister Robert Fico called journalists "dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes".
Criticism of the news media by politicians and media personalities was also particularly virulent during the French presidential election campaign in 2017, it said.
Although Britain remained at its current rank in 40th place this year, RSF warned about insufficient protection for whistleblowers, journalists and their sources under the Investigatory Powers Act, which it called "the most extreme surveillance legislation in UK history".
"A continued heavy-handed approach towards the press (often in the name of national security) has resulted in the UK keeping its status as one of the worst-ranked Western European countries in the World Press Freedom Index," RSF said.
Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands were the best ranked countries, while North Korea, Eritrea and Turkmenistan came at the bottom.
(Reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Leigh Thomas)