Overview Essay

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Press Freedom in 2002

by Karin Deutsch Karlekar
 

Press freedom came under increasing pressure and suffered a notable decline in 2002.  Journalists' ability to report freely was hindered by ongoing political conflict and insurgencies, as well as by heightened government-directed restrictions on media outlets. While a number of authoritarian regimes continued to stifle independent media, a particularly worrying trend during the year was that in many cases, intimidation and harassment of the press was perpetrated or condoned by nominally democratic governments.

The annual Freedom House survey of press freedom provides a numerical rating for each country as well as categorizing the level of press freedom in each country as "Free," "Partly Free," or "Not Free." Ratings are determined on the basis of an examination of three broad categories: the legal environment in which media operate, political influences on reporting and access to information, and economic pressures on content and the dissemination of news.

In 2002, fully 78 countries (41 percent) out of 193 surveyed were rated Free, while 47 (24 percent) were rated Partly Free and 68 (35 percent) were rated Not Free. The year saw a marked deterioration in press freedom worldwide, as measured by a shift in category. Overall, 4 countries (Dominican Republic, Panama, Peru, and Thailand) declined from Free to Partly Free, while 7 countries (Armenia, Colombia, Jordan, Nepal, Russia, Ukraine, and Venezuela) declined from Partly Free to Not Free. Only 2 countries registered a positive category shift in 2002 - Fiji moved up from Partly Free to Free, and Sri Lanka improved from Not Free to Partly Free.

In terms of population, 20 percent of the world's population lives in countries that enjoy a Free press, while 38 percent have a Partly Free press and 42 percent have a Not Free press. This situation represents a significant decline during the course of the past year, as the proportion of the world's population in the Not Free category increased by four percentage points from last year.

Smaller numerical declines were registered in a number of other states where media outlets and journalists were subjected to a wide range of legal, political, and economic pressures. Other key trends noted in 2002 include:

  • Marked declines in the Americas and Eurasia
  • The heightened threat to press freedom posed by political conflict and armed insurgencies
  • An increased use of politically motivated lawsuits and other criminal charges to harass the media
  • The threat to diversity of media ownership posed by state takeovers or consolidation of private ownership
  • A decline in press freedom in a number of electoral democracies

This year's findings demonstrate that the media remain vulnerable, even in many of the world's nominally democratic countries. These governments' use of a wide variety of methods to intimidate the press continues to hinder the ability of journalists to provide independent scrutiny and commentary, which is critically important if governments are to remain accountable.

 

Regional Trends

Although declines were seen worldwide, negative trends were particularly apparent in the Americas and in Eurasia.  In the Americas, 18 countries (52 percent) were rated Free, 13 (37 percent) were rated Partly Free, and 4 (11 percent) were rated Not Free. Colombia and Venezuela joined the ranks of Cuba and Haiti in having the worst environment for the press in the region. Elsewhere in Latin America, scores declined as a result of economic pressure, continued legal harassment, and the unwillingness of elected governments to tolerate scrutiny from independent media outlets. The regional economic downturn negatively affected the press in a number of countries, most notably in Argentina, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Honduras. Meanwhile, the use of the courts as a method of censoring journalists was on the rise in Brazil and Uruguay.

Although just over half the countries in the region have media that are classified as Free, a number of formerly Free countries slipped into the Partly Free category during 2002. In the Dominican Republic, the concentration of media ownership, coupled with the government's selective placement of advertisements, imposed a growing financial burden on the independent press. Panama's rating fell as a result of the sustained and widespread legal campaign against critical journalists by public officials; as a result of that campaign, more than 90 journalists are facing criminal libel or defamation charges. Peru, which had been rated Free in 2001, slipped back into the Partly Free category as people associated with the Toledo administration brought legal charges against the media for libel or for reporting on corruption. Journalists faced threats and assaults as well. The backsliding during 2002 by this new, democratically elected government underscores the reality that in fledgling democracies, the media often continue to face considerable pressures as a result of restrictive legislation or a politicized judiciary.

In Central Europe and Eurasia, declines also outweighed gains in 2002.  In this year's survey, 9 countries (33 percent) were classified as Free, 8 (30 percent) as Partly Free, and 10 (37 percent) as Not Free. The percentage of countries with Not Free media increased dramatically as three countries slipped from Partly Free to Not Free in 2002. While declines in the Americas can be attributed to a number of reasons, the overriding concern in countries of the former Soviet Union is the pressure placed on independent media outlets by the state. In Macedonia, several independent broadcasters were forcibly closed for the duration of the parliamentary election campaign, while state-run media displayed a marked bias in favor of the ruling party. Authorities also threatened and charged journalists with criminal libel if they "disgraced" the government during the campaign period. Meanwhile, officials in Kazakhstan cracked down on investigative reporters, charging several with alleged offenses in response to their coverage of corruption and human rights issues.

State harassment was the primary factor in downgrading Armenia, Russia, and Ukraine from Partly Free to Not Free in 2002. In both Russia and Armenia, the public's access to diverse sources of information was curtailed by the closing of leading independent television broadcasters. In addition, Armenian authorities repeatedly used security legislation and criminal libel laws to stifle critical coverage, while Russian and Ukrainian journalists are frequently targeted by politically motivated libel lawsuits, criminal charges, safety inspections, and obstructive tax audits. Reporters in all three countries, particularly those who investigate alleged official corruption or present critical views, continue to be subjected to intimidation and violent attacks, including murder. Furthermore, credible investigations into these crimes are rarely undertaken. However, one of the most worrying aspects of this regional decline is that state-directed intimidation of the media and attempts to influence media outlets are being perpetrated by democratically elected governments that seem to be increasingly fearful of critical coverage.

The overall level of press freedom remained largely unchanged in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, despite gains or declines in a number of individual countries. Western Europe continued to boast the highest level of press freedom worldwide, with 24 countries (96 percent) rated Free and 1 (4 percent) rated Partly Free. The Asia Pacific region also exhibited a relatively high level of press freedom, with 18 countries (46 percent) rated Free, 7 (18 percent) rated Partly Free, and 14 (36 percent) rated Not Free.  Improvements were balanced by declines in 2002, as Fiji and Sri Lanka moved up in category while Thailand and Nepal were downgraded. In contrast, no category changes took place in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 8 countries (17 percent) were rated Free, 16 (33 percent) were rated Partly Free, and 24 (50 percent) were rated Not Free. The region with the worst conditions for the media in 2002 continued to be the Middle East and North Africa, with 1 country (5 percent) rated Free, 2 (11 percent) rated Partly Free, and 16 (84 percent) rated Not Free.

 

Positive Trends during the Year

Despite an overall global decline in the level of press freedom, certain countries did register positive change during 2002. The biggest numerical shift of the year was seen in Sri Lanka, whose rating improved from Not Free to Partly Free. A lasting bilateral ceasefire agreement between the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels signed in February, accompanied by continuing peace talks, led to a more open environment for the media throughout the year, particularly regarding the limits of permissible coverage and access to areas previously under rebel control. In addition, newly elected Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe demonstrated a commitment to removing legal restrictions on the media, and in June, the Sri Lankan parliament voted to repeal the criminal defamation law. 

Greater political stability also led to an improved press freedom rating for Fiji, which joined a number of its Pacific neighbors in being rated Free.  Under the Qarase administration elected in August 2001, overt harassment of the media has declined and journalists are generally able to report freely on controversial issues.  An end to civil wars in Angola and Chad led to somewhat greater space for the media to operate, while progress was also noted in the post-conflict states of Somalia and Afghanistan as a result of the growth in the number of independent media outlets. Elsewhere in the world, the passage of reformist media legislation in 2002 contributed to noticeable improvements in Bosnia, Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), Azerbaijan, and Bahrain.

 

Conflict and Insurgency Take a Toll

In a number of countries, press freedom has been progressively compromised by political instability or civil conflict. The ability of the media to operate freely and impartially can become especially hampered when media outlets are seen to be providing overt editorial support to a particular side in the conflict.  Three countries - Colombia, Nepal, and Venezuela - entered the ranks of the Not Free countries during 2002 as a result of such pressures.

An intensification of the Maoist insurgency in Nepal, coupled with more aggressive tactics employed by the government to fight it, had a negative impact on Nepal's press environment in 2002.  After declaring a state of emergency in November 2001, which broadened restrictions on permissible coverage, authorities arrested more than 100 journalists during 2002 under the provisions of a new antiterrorism ordinance. Although the majority had no connection to the Maoist rebels and were held for short periods of time, more than a dozen remain incarcerated. Reporters have also been threatened and violently attacked by the Maoists. In Colombia, right-wing paramilitaries and Marxist guerillas in a continuing armed conflict routinely target both local and foreign journalists.  A number of murders during the year, repeated harassment and threats against reporters, and economic pressures on media outlets combined to cause a further decline in Colombia's level of press freedom. Meanwhile, a dramatic deterioration in political stability in neighboring Venezuela in 2002 led to the largest numerical decline of the year as well as to a category downgrade. However, in this case the media were not merely caught between opposing factions in an increasingly polarized atmosphere; instead, media outlets took an active role in opposing the government of President Hugo Chavez. Responding to Chavez's verbal antagonism towards the media, as well as harassment and physical attacks on journalists by his supporters, many private media outlets adopted a pronounced anti-Chavez slant, and coverage became decidedly biased during the course of the year.

In all three countries, political or military strife, coupled with the targeting of the media by some or all parties to the conflict, led to significant declines in the level of press freedom by encouraging fear and self-censorship, and by creating a climate of impunity in which those who infringe on the media's rights are not punished for their actions. Political tension in the wake of a disputed December 2001 presidential election, which threatened to destabilize Madagascar during the first several months of 2002, also had a negative impact on the ability of the local media to report impartially on the crisis, as journalists and media outlets with connections to both factions became the targets of attack.  However, a legal resolution to the dispute in April restored a measure of stability to the island nation. Media independence was similarly compromised by a protracted political crisis triggered by a rebel insurgency that erupted in Cote d'Ivoire in September. While authorities jammed the signals of foreign media outlets, local journalists and newspapers suspected of antigovernment bias were subjected to harassment and attacks. Elsewhere, ongoing armed conflicts in Liberia and in the Israeli-administered Territories/Palestinian Authority led to a further decline in the numerical scores for these two entities.

 

Continuing Government-Directed Pressure on the Media

A more worrying trend in 2002, already noted in the case of several countries in the former Soviet Union but also apparent worldwide, is the imposition of additional restrictions on the press by the state. These attempts to silence or intimidate independent media outlets take a variety of forms - restrictive laws and politically motivated prosecutions, censorship, verbal and physical harassment, careful direction of advertising revenue - and have long been used by repressive regimes to strengthen their control over critical voices. However, the use of these tactics, which have become increasingly sophisticated, has spread to elected governments in fragile democracies that are equally wary of criticism and scrutiny.

Flagrant state repression against journalists and media outlets continued to be a problem in certain countries throughout the year. The five worst-rated countries in 2002 were Burma, Cuba, Iraq, North Korea, and Turkmenistan.  In these states, independent media are either nonexistent or barely able to operate, and the role of the press is to act as a mouthpiece for the ruling regime. Other authoritarian governments also extended their control over the media through a variety of means. In Zimbabwe, the Mugabe administration passed draconian legislation that further restricted the ability of both foreign and local reporters to work freely. Eritrea's dramatic 2001 crackdown against the independent media, ostensibly on the grounds of national security, continued; all private newspapers have been banned and 18 journalists remain in prison. In Togo, an amendment to the press code that increased the penalties for defamation was used to arrest a number of journalists, and official pressure on advertisers has endangered the financial viability of many independent publications. Haitian authorities continue to disregard legal provisions for press freedom and impede investigations into the murders of two journalists, and the press faced increased harassment and violence at the hands of government supporters throughout the year.

In a number of countries, regimes focused on controlling content on the Internet as a way of suppressing independent voices. Tunisian authorities aggressively monitor Web sites, and in June the founder of a satirical Internet site was sentenced to two years in prison for spreading "false information." In the Maldives, four Internet writers were tried for defamation and three were sentenced to life imprisonment. The governments of China and Vietnam continue to block access to politically sensitive Web sites and to arrest and imprison cyber-dissidents.

State directed intimidation was not confined to authoritarian regimes, however. Jordan's crackdown against the press, begun in late 2001, continued in 2002 with the adoption of additional legal regulations under which journalists were prosecuted for criticizing the government or for publishing "false information." In addition, the government closed the local bureau of Al-Jazeera after the Qatar-based satellite news channel aired a program in which participants criticized Jordanian foreign policy. The impact of sustained pressure on the media meant that Jordan was downgraded from Partly Free to Not Free in 2002. The situation for Bangladesh's independent press also continued to deteriorate during the course of the year. In a polarized political environment, journalists continue to be targeted by members of political parties, criminals, and Islamic fundamentalists as a result of their investigations into corruption and human rights issues. In addition, the government has become increasingly sensitive to the reports of foreign media organizations. In December, a number of foreign and local journalists were arrested, detained by security forces, and tortured while in custody after they attempted to report on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the country.

That fledgling democracies seem increasingly intolerant of scrutiny and ever more willing to restrict the ability of the media to report freely was highlighted this year in the case of Thailand, which was downgraded from Free to Partly Free in 2002. The heightened sensitivity to criticism on the part of Thaksin Shinawatra's administration became apparent early in the year, when editions of two international publications were banned and the government threatened to deport two foreign journalists. Meanwhile, local media groups faced increased official pressure to tone down critical reporting, programming was taken off the air, and several editors were forced to resign. As Thaksin consolidates his party's hold over bureaucratic structures and increases the power of the executive, he seems unwilling to allow the press, as well as other independent institutions designed to check corruption, to continue in their role as independent watchdogs of the government.
 

Conclusions

Increased state-directed pressure on the media and the global decline in press freedom noted in this year's survey come at a time when overall democracy trends are holding steady. Indeed, this year's edition of Freedom in the World, Freedom House's annual survey of political rights and civil liberties, noted that gains for freedom were made in a number of countries during 2002 and that improvements in score outweighed declines by a three-to-one ratio. However, a comparison on both surveys reveals that 35 countries are rated in a lower category on press freedom than they are in terms of their general political and civil freedoms.

How does one explain this discrepancy? One possible explanation is that although 121 of the world's 192 governments can be considered electoral democracies, the presence of a minimum standard of electoral conduct does not automatically lead to other attributes of a mature democracy, such as strong civic institutions, an independent judiciary, and vibrant and free media. In relatively new or fragile democracies, the press is often considered to be a nuisance that must be managed or exploited, rather than as an independent watchdog that should be allowed to freely scrutinize official policies and practice. The rising level of violations of press freedom by democratically elected regimes, often by varied and subtle means, is a reminder that in many societies, progress in political rights has not yet been matched by commensurate advances in civil liberties.  This trend poses a serious challenge to a deepening of freedom and democracy around the world, and must continue to be carefully monitored.

 


Karin Deutsch Karlekar, a senior researcher at Freedom House, served as managing editor of Freedom of the Press 2003. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge University.