A demonstrator holds picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a protest in front of Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 5, 2018.

Hatred of journalists whipped up by populist and authoritarian leaders is degenerating into violence across the world, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has warned.

The number of countries where journalists can work safely is plummeting, RSF’s annual World Press Freedom Index revealed on Thursday.

Political leaders’ hostility towards the media “has incited increasingly frequent acts of violence that have fuelled an unprecedented level of fear and danger for journalists”, the report added.

“If the political debate slides towards a civil war-style atmosphere, where journalists are treated as scapegoats, then democracy is in great danger,” said RSF chief Christophe Deloire.

Press freedom was in good health in only less than a quarter of the 180 countries covered by the index, with the United States sliding to 48th place.

The period since President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 has been one of the “American journalism community’s darkest moments”, the report said, linking Trump’s “notorious anti-press rhetoric” with “terrifying harassment” aimed particularly at women and journalists of colour.

“Never before have US journalists been subjected to so many death threats or turned so often to private security firms for protection.

“Hatred of the media is now such that a gunman walked into the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, in June and killed four journalists and one other staff member,” the report added.

The Paris-based watchdog fears that the rising tide of strongman leaders “no longer seem to know any limits”, citing the gruesome murder of the Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last year.

A critic of the Saudi regime, Khashoggi was killed and dismembered on October 2 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a team of 15 agents sent from Riyadh. His body has never been recovered.

Meanwhile, India, the world’s biggest democracy, slid two places further into the red zone at 140th place.

Six reporters were murdered in India last year and RSF said critics of the Hindu nationalism espoused by its ruling party “are branded as ‘anti-Indian’ in online harassment campaigns”.

Russia, which the report branded as another “pioneer of repression”, continued to slide down to 149th place.

Another former Soviet republic, Turkmenistan, has sunk to the very bottom of the ranking, supplanting North Korea because of its “disgraceful… and relentless” repression of reporters.

Armenia, meanwhile, jumped 19 places to 61st after its “Velvet Revolution” and Kyrgyzstan also climbing 15 after it ended travel bans and the threat of levying “astronomical damages” on reporters.

But there was little to cheer about in China, which remains rooted to the bottom of the list with the fourth worst record.

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