THIS time next week I’ll be fully immersed in what’s known as Hostile Environment Training (HET). As a Glaswegian who lives in the heart of the city, it would be easy to dismiss the need for such a course with a nod of facetious familiarity. But all joking aside and speaking as a journalist and reporter of the world’s woes, this is a serious business.

Throughout the four days of the course, briefings and field exercises will focus on everything from threat evaluation to travel security, explosive device awareness to kidnap survival, cyber security and dealing with post traumatic stress.

In nearly four decades of covering conflicts around the world, I’ve never yet undergone such a course, learning instead while on the job.

That direct experience has served me well, but the job has changed, as has the nature of the threats and the need for precautionary measures taken by some of the media outlets for which myself and other journalists work.

Yesterday saw a stark reminder of those threats to journalists globally with the publication of the annual World Press Freedom Index by the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF). It makes for an alarming if not altogether surprising read, the bottom line being that the number of countries where journalists can now work safely has fallen sharply in recent times.

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Of the 180 countries listed in the index, press freedom is “healthy” in only a quarter. The media climate in the others is invariably described as “problematic”, “difficult” or “very serious”.

Threats to journalists of course continue to be obvious in the now familiar “war zone” countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq. But what’s most striking from the latest assessment is the extent to which free freedom is declining in certain Western democracies, especially right here in the UK and United States.

Britain rose seven places higher than last year to stand a staggering 33rd in the latest index, one of the lowest ranked in western Europe, behind Germany (13), Spain (29) and France (32). The UK also now ranks below countries like Ghana, Latvia, Surinam, Jamaica and South Africa.

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Right here in the UK in recent weeks we have seen some of the reasons for this first hand. One need only think of the scenes outside Westminster as television news crews and other reporters were intimidated on the streets by far-right supporters during the tensions unleashed by Brexit.

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These ugly responses are not going to disappear anytime soon as the UK remains polarised over the debate on withdrawing from the European Union (EU).

“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,” warned RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire yesterday as the report was released.

Here in Britain there are other reasons, too, as to why the UK’s reputation on press freedom has become increasingly tarnished. As RSF makes clear, “heavy handedness” towards the press often in the name of national security is also to blame. The troubling arrest last year of Belfast reporters Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey in connection with a documentary exposing alleged police collusion in the Loughinisland massacre of 1994 in Northern Ireland is an obvious point in case.

But if Britain scores badly in the latest index then the US does even worse, slipping to an astonishing 48th place globally, a result of its increasingly hostile climate towards journalists.

I for one can’t forget that now infamous photograph of the man wearing and selling T-shirts at a rally in support of Donald Trump in Minnesota in 2016.

“Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required”, read the slogan on the back of the shirt, a clear reference to the lynching of reporters. It’s Trump’s America, or his toxic version of it that has in great part set in motion the prevailing threats, intimidation and violence that journalists now face across the world.

While some countries have always been especially challenging for media workers, it was Trump’s anti-press rhetoric that effectively declared open season on journalists, giving the green light to other political leaders and groups around the world.

As RSF rightly says, the period since his election in 2016 has been one of “darkest moments”, for America’s journalist community.

Never was this more horrifically brought home than last June when a gunman walked into the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis and killed four journalists and one other staff member.

Given Trump’s lead it should perhaps come as no surprise that despots, dictators and political “strongmen” around the world, from President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines to President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Vladimir Putin in Russia, think nothing of cracking down on what they see as the threat posed by a free press.

“Democracies seem to be giving up,” warns Cedric Alviani, the East Asia Bureau Director of RSF, which only “encourages authoritarian governments to silence the media.”

The gruesome murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last year is bitter testimony to the fact that some political leaders no longer seem to recognise any limits in achieving this.

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In all, 80 journalists were killed worldwide in 2018, up from 65 in 2017, and 49 of these were deliberately killed because of their reporting.

The press themselves, of course, should never be above criticism, but as any cursory glance at social media shows, much of the opprobrium directed its way is often at best ill considered and at worst overtly politically motivated.

Perhaps those who most vociferously lash out at journalists need to pause and consider the extent to which such off-the-cuff criticism in itself cumulatively contributes to the wider threat a free press faces.

Criticism where criticism is due is one thing, wilfully helping intimidate the media and doing cynical politicians’ work for them is something else.

These are times when sinister and malign political forces move amongst us and a fully functioning free press is crucial in thwarting their corrosive influence. In the coming weeks I’ll most likely be heading back to Afghanistan, long designated a hostile environment for practising reporters.

The threat of bullets and bombs there is obvious. Europe, meanwhile, continues to be the continent that best guarantees press freedom, but this is certainly no time for complacency. The hostile environment for journalists is now increasingly right here on our doorstep.