Global Press Freedom Declines. Freedom House Cites | Freedom House

Global Press Freedom Declines. Freedom House Cites

New York

The degree of press freedom in the world declined in 1998, according to a survey of the news media issued today by Freedom House. It blamed the setback on restrictions imposed by governments through legalistic means rather than outright oppression or violence. The study called this "censorship by stealth."

The survey, "News of the Century: Press Freedom 1999," is the 21st annual news media study issued by Freedom House, which monitors political and civil rights worldwide.

Freedom House ranks press freedom on a scale of 1 to 100, with a lower score indicating a country with a freer press. In 1998, the average press-freedom level of 186 countries was 49.04, a decline from 1997 of nearly three percent. A score between 31 and 60 represents partly-free news media. The 1997 average was 46.29.

The negative trend is "particularly disturbing because it reverses, even if temporarily, the twentieth century's movement toward the enlargement of press freedom," declared Leonard R. Sussman, coordinator of the survey. "While physical attacks, even murder and arrest of journalists have not ended, regimes increasingly use subtle legislation such as 'insult laws' to restrict criticism," Sussman added.

Sussman noted that some reductions in press freedom were found in 53 countries, while slight improvement was noted in only 20 nations. "Nearly 30 percent of 186 countries took new initiatives to restrict, if not silence, press reports and especially dissent," Sussman stated. "That is disturbing at a time when more democracies exist than ever. The trend suggests a form of censorship by stealth-the use of innocuous-sounding laws to restrict reporting and inspire self-censorship."

These laws generally emphasize the "duties" of journalists to protect national security, public health and morals, and the reputations of citizens, especially rulers and their parties.

The survey listed 68 countries (36 percent of the world's total) as having a free press, 52 (28 percent) partly free, and 66 (36 percent) with news media that are not free. Major declines in press freedom were noted in Ghana, Peru, and Jordan, whose media declined from partly free to not free, while Namibia and Samoa declined from free to partly free.

Most reductions in news media freedom were marginal. Yet only 1.2 billion people live in nations with a free press, 2.4 billion where the press is partly free, and another 2.4 billion in not-free nations.

Improvement was noted in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Indonesia, and Nigeria, which moved from not free to partly free. Mongolia, Slovakia, and Thailand entered the free category from the partly free. The most notable improvement was registered in Nigeria. With the death of the country's dictator in July many press restrictions were removed. Earlier last year, before the dictator's death, two journalists were shot to death, 23 were arrested, and 24 others physically attacked.

With the fall of the Suharto government last year, Indonesian journalists enjoyed a marked improvement in press freedom. Yet given the country's unsettled political and economic conditions and the persistence of ethnic tensions, journalists continue to exercise self-censorship in their political reporting.

Peru's newspapers and magazines felt increasing pressure from President Fujimori, whom many believe is planning to run for a constitutionally prohibited third term. Since 1992, many print and broadcast journalists have been intimidated by libel suits, detention, house arrest, and in one famous case the revocation of a television station owner's citizenship.

In Asia, the press was rated not free in Malaysia and Singapore. The financial crisis that provoked riots last year in Malaysia caused the government to criticize and censor foreign journalists and to exert additional pressures on the domestic news media. In Singapore, a government-linked company operates all four "independent" television channels and 10 of 15 radio stations. The Internet must be accessed through a government censor's server. All major newspapers and 20 percent of cable television are owned by a commercial company with strong ties to the government.

The survey reports a modest decline in Russia. Communists in the Duma (parliament) are calling for greater censorship, but ailing President Boris Yeltsin vowed with "all our strength" to protect the press and fight censorship. Nevertheless, the Russian print and broadcast press are increasingly subject to control by Russia's oligarchs, who own practically all major media, as well as by political operatives.

Each country's score is determined by assessing its press laws and their administration, the degree of political and economic influence on journalistic content, and actual cases of violations ranging from harassment of journalists and the media to physical attacks and murder. Last year, 35 journalists were killed on the job, another 284 were physically attacked, 329 were arrested, and 749 journalists and their institutions were harassed, banned, or otherwise threatened.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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