Press Freedom Declines Worldwide | Freedom House

Press Freedom Declines Worldwide

New York

Press freedom suffered notable worldwide deterioration in 2002, due in part to political and armed conflicts and increased government-backed restrictions on independent media outlets, Freedom House announced in a major study released today.

Among the most serious developments were major setbacks for press freedom in Russia, Ukraine, and Venezuela.

The study, Freedom of the Press 2003: A Global Survey of Media Independence, reveals that some press restrictions took place in fledgling democracies, demonstrating that the media are one of the most vulnerable sectors in societies still struggling to reform.

The entire report, which contains country-by-country analysis, can be found on Freedom House's web site.

The survey assesses the degree of press freedom in every country in the world and rates each country as Free, Partly Free, or Not Free.

Overall, the study reveals that 11 countries--Armenia, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Jordan, Nepal, Panama, Peru, Russia, Thailand, Ukraine, and Venezuela--declined in category, while only 2 countries--Fiji and Sri Lanka--increased.

Of 193 countries surveyed (including the Israeli-Administered Territories/Palestinian Authority), 78 (41%, representing 20% of the world's population) were rated Free, with no significant restrictions on the news media; 47 (24%, or 38% of the global population) were rated Partly Free and are characterized by some media restrictions; and 68 (35%, or 42% of the world's population) were rated Not Free, with state control or other obstacles to a free press.

The proportion of the world's population considered Not Free increased by four percent from 2001

"Freedom House is deeply concerned by this significant decline in press freedom," said Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor. "Of particular concern is that some countries that are nominally democratic do not feature vibrant independent media due to heavy government interference. This only reinforces the key role independent media play in keeping governments accountable," she said.

Political instability and civil conflict took a serious toll on press freedom in 2002. Media in countries such as Colombia, Nepal, and Venezuela--which all declined to Not Free--faced broader restrictions on permissible coverage and intimidation by government officials. Violent attacks against the press by some or all parties to a conflict led to significant declines in the level of press freedom as fear led to self-censorship. Those who infringe on the media's rights are often not punished for their actions, perpetuating a climate of impunity.

Ongoing armed conflicts in Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire and in the Israeli-Administered Territories/Palestinian Authority led to further declines in their numerical scores.

Democracy's Fragility

There were also worrying signs in 2002 in some of the world's more fragile democracies and transitional societies, where media do not enjoy protections from government interference normally featured in established democracies. Restrictive legislation and politicized judiciaries still prevail in some of these countries, such as in Russia, where the government of Vladimir Putin clamped down on independent media.

In Venezuela, a protracted political crisis led to serious harassment of the media by supporters of President Hugo Chavez, resulting in the country's shift into the Not Free category.

"One of the most worrying aspects of this deterioration in press freedom is that state-directed intimidation of and attempts to influence the media are being perpetrated by democratically elected governments that seem to be increasingly unwilling to tolerate critical coverage," said Karin Karlekar, the survey's managing editor.

Bright Spots

Two countries--Sri Lanka and Fiji--registered positive category shifts during the year. Sri Lanka improved from Not Free to Partly Free as the ceasefire agreement between the government and the Tamil Eelam rebel group increased the range of permissible coverage and press access to areas formerly under rebel control. In Fiji, greater political stability helped to reduce overt harassment of the media and to move the country from Party Free to Free.

While insufficient for category shifts, progress was nonetheless registered in Angola and Chad, where civil wars have ended, and in Somalia and Afghanistan, which have seen the growth of independent media outlets. The passage of reformist media legislation in Bosnia, the former Yugoslavia, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain contributed to noticeable improvements in press freedom in those countries.

Regional Trends

Americas: Of the 35 countries of the Americas, 18 (52%) are Free, 13 (37%) are Partly Free, and 4 (11%) are Not Free. Many of the world's declines were registered in the Americas, with Colombia and Venezuela joining Cuba and Haiti in the Not Free category. Peru regressed to Partly Free after the government leveled charges against the media for libel and for reporting on corruption. Panama also moved to Partly Free due to a widespread legal campaign against journalists by public officials, as did the Dominican Republic, due to selective placement of official advertisements in newspapers and increased concentration of media ownership.

Asia Pacific: Of 39 Asian Pacific countries, 18 (46%) are rated Free, 7 (18%) are Partly Free, and 14 (36%) are Not Free. While Sri Lanka improved to Partly Free and Fiji to Free, Nepal fell to Not Free in the midst of a violent Maoist insurgency. In Thailand, which declined from Free to Partly Free after two international publications were banned, local media faced official pressure to soften critical reporting, and several editors were forced to resign. The restrictions in Thailand came as Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra increased executive powers and moved to prevent media coverage of official corruption.

Central & Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union: Of the 27 countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, 9 (33%) are rated Free, 8 (30%) are Partly Free, and 10 (37%) are Not Free. Russia's and Armenia's ratings declined from Partly Free to Not Free after each country's government shut down leading independent television broadcasters. Ukraine also moved to Not Free after several journalists were targeted by politically motivated libel lawsuits and obstructive tax audits. Russian and Ukrainian reporters who investigated official corruption were routinely intimidated and sometimes violently attacked. Three journalists in Russia were murdered.

Middle East & North Africa: Of the 19 Middle Eastern and North African countries, only one (5%), Israel, is rated Free. Two countries (11%), Kuwait and Morocco, are Partly Free, while sixteen (84%) are Not Free. The Middle East is the only region with an average rating of Not Free. Jordan moved to Not Free after journalists there were prosecuted for criticizing the government. A notable decline took place in Tunisia, where authorities sentenced an Internet writer to two years in prison for spreading "false information." Several journalists were shot while covering the violence in the West Bank.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Of 48 Sub-Saharan African countries, 8 (17%) are rated Free, 16 (33%) Partly Free and 24 (50%) Not Free. In Zimbabwe, the government of Robert Mugabe passed draconian legislation that further restricted the ability of both foreign and local reporters to work freely. Eritrea--where all private newspapers have been banned and several journalists remain jailed--continued a year-old crackdown against independent media, ostensibly on national security grounds.

Western Europe: Of 25 Western European countries, 24 (96%) are rated Free. One country (4%), Turkey, is rated Partly Free. None is rated Not Free.

Freedom House, a non-profit, non-partisan organization, monitors political rights and civil liberties worldwide. In addition to its annual Freedom of the Press survey, it also publishes Freedom in the World, an annual global survey measuring freedom in every country, and Nations in Transit, a comprehensive comparative survey of the post-Communist states of Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union.

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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