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Press Under Threat in Key Asian, African countries, Study Finds; Longer-Term Pattern of Decline Noted in Latin America and Former Soviet Union
Press freedom suffered setbacks in a number of important countries in Asia and Africa in 2005, including some that had previously registered improvements, according to a major study released today by Freedom House. The most significant declines occurred in Asia (East Timor, Nepal, the Philippines, and Thailand), Africa (Uganda, Botswana, and Ethiopia), and the former Soviet Union (Russia and Uzbekistan).
The study, "Freedom of the Press 2006: A Global Survey of Media Independence," showed continued volatility in Africa, as well as a continuation of a longer-term pattern of decline in press freedom in Latin America and the former Soviet Union.
"These findings are a source of real concern," declared Jennifer Windsor, Freedom House Executive Director. "We find particularly disturbing the deterioration in press freedom in countries in that had made overall democratic progress--including in press freedom--in the past. We need to remain vigilant in noting the erosion of press freedom in democratically-elected countries," she added.
Russia, which ranked 158th out of the 194 countries and territories assessed in the survey, saw further declines in 2005. "It's ironic and sad," Ms. Windsor said, "that a report that shows further decline of an already poor record is being released simultaneously with the twentieth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, an event which so significantly contributed to press freedom in the old Soviet Union." She urged that the constraints on press freedom in Russia be addressed by the U.S. and other governments planning to attend the G-8 Summit scheduled for mid-July in St. Petersburg.
The report, released in advance of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, did find some improvements in a number of countries in Africa, such as Kenya, Mauritania, and Liberia, as well as in Egypt, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.
The survey, first launched in 1980, assesses the degree of print, broadcast, and Internet freedom in every country in the world. It assigns each country a numerical score from 0 to 100 that determines a category rating of Free, Partly Free, or Not Free. Ratings are determined by examining 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. The survey, which analyzes events during the 2005 calendar year, bases its ratings not only on government actions and policies but also on the behavior of the press itself in testing boundaries, even in restrictive environments.
Out of the 194 countries and territories examined, 73 (38 percent) were rated Free, while 54 (28 percent) were rated Partly Free and 67 (34 percent) were rated Not Free.
In terms of population, 17 percent of the world's inhabitants live in countries that enjoy a Free press, while 40 percent have a Partly Free press and 43 percent have a Not Free press. The numbers show a decline in the number of people living in Free media environments, but also a decline in those living in Not Free conditions, indicating that more countries are in the "grey zone" of partial media freedom.
According to the 2006 survey, two countries improved in category while two declined. On the positive side, two African countries, Kenya and Mauritania, improved from Not Free to Partly Free. Showing declines from Free to Partly Free status were Botswana and East Timor.
In a key finding, the survey showed a pattern of continued decline in media freedom in Latin America and the Caribbean over the past fifteen years. The number of Free countries dropped from 23 in 1990 to 17 in 2005, the most significant decline for any region. Another region to undergo a notable decline was the former Soviet Union, which showed an increase of Not Free countries from 7 in 1995 to 10 in 2005.
"The movement in these two regions is deplorable," Ms. Windsor said. She expressed particular concern about the trend in Latin America. "This may not be a crisis situation, but the drift is clear, and unsettling," she said. "It is time for democrats in the hemisphere, including the Organization of American States, to begin speaking out and identifying the causes of the problem and the political leaders who are responsible for the decline."
Modest gains were registered by several countries in the Middle East and North Africa, most notably Egypt, where internet and satellite television have expanded access to information, and where journalists are pushing the envelope of a slightly more tolerant political environment. However, the vast majority of countries in the region (84%) remain in the Not Free category.
Karin Karlekar, managing editor of the press freedom survey, noted that while the improvements in Egypt and several other Middle Eastern countries were encouraging, little credit should be given to government policies. "These improvements are largely due to the impact of new media, including the Internet and pan-Arab satellite television," she said, "as well as to the courage of individual journalists and editors and their increasing willingness to push the boundaries."
Americas: In the Americas, 17 countries (49 percent) were rated Free, 14 (40 percent) were rated Partly Free, and 4 (11 percent) were rated Not Free in 2005. Of special concern are Mexico, whose score declined largely due to a continuing wave of violence against journalists; Venezuela, where the government of President Hugo Chavez has continued its efforts to control the press; and Argentina, where the national and state governments have made widespread use of advertising to dominate the press.
Asia Pacific: The Asia Pacific region exhibited a relatively high level of freedom, with 17 countries (42.5 percent) rated Free, 8 (20 percent) rated Partly Free, and 15 (37.5 percent) rated Not Free.
East Timor declined from Free to Partly Free because of a new criminal code that called for severe penalties for defamation and a campaign of harassment against a leading newspaper. Press freedom declined in the Philippines because of a continued high level of physical violence directed against reporters coupled with increasing official intolerance towards investigative journalists. In Thailand, sustained attempts to intimidate and control the media through the use of exorbitant libel suits against individual journalists, as well as economic means such as buying shares in newspapers, led to a more restricted environment.
Conditions in Nepal declined as media faced heightened pressures as part of a broader crackdown on civil liberties that followed a February 2005 "palace coup" in which King Gyanendra assumed executive powers and imposed a state of emergency. Censorship was instituted at major media outlets, journalists were subject to arrest and detention, and the government pushed through restrictive amendments to the media laws and attempted to shut down independent radio stations.
Central and Eastern Europe/Former Soviet Union: In Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, 8 countries (30 percent) were classified as Free, 9 (33 percent) as Partly Free, and 10 (37 percent) as Not Free.
Russia remained a source of particular concern. Downgraded to the Not Free category for the year 2002, its decline continued in 2005, as authorities used a combination of legal and economic pressures, coupled with outright physical threats, to prevent reportage on sensitive topics such as the war in Chechnya. Uzbekistan also registered a noticeable worsening of its media environment in 2005 as part of a broader crackdown following the May uprising in the city of Andijon. On the positive side, both Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan posted improvements following gains for democracy in both countries, although the latter country still remained in the Not Free category.
Middle East and North Africa: The region continued to show the lowest region-wide ratings, with 1 country (5 percent)--Israel--rated Free, 2 (11 percent) rated Partly Free, and 16 (84 percent)--including the Israeli-Occupied Territories and Palestinian Authority--rated Not Free. Despite a sharp increase in violence directly targeting journalists in Lebanon, the country remained in the Partly Free category in 2005, largely because of the sustained openings seen in the Lebanese press, which continued to express diverse and critical views. In contrast, a similar increase in violent attacks on reporters in Yemen during the year led to further difficulties in covering the news and a heightened feeling of self-censorship among journalists. The report noted positive trends in Egypt, which along with Algeria, Morocco, and Jordan are all only one point away from being ranked as Partly Free.
Sub-Saharan Africa: Overall, 7 countries (14.5 percent) were rated Free, 19 (39.5 percent) were rated Partly Free, and 22 (46 percent) remain rated Not Free.
Botswana was downgraded to Partly Free following the expulsion of two journalists amid a more general climate of official intolerance for critical views, as exemplified by the expulsion of an academic who also irked authorities by his critical stance. Kenya saw its rating improve from Not Free to Partly Free, as a result of a decrease in the number of cases of extra-legal intimidation of journalists. In Mauritania, dramatic political changes which occurred after a bloodless coup led to a relaxation of draconian press laws and an opening of state-run media to more diverse opinions under the new transition government; as a result, the country's press freedom rating was upgraded to Partly Free.
In both Ethiopia and Uganda, governmental fear of opposition electoral gains led to broad political crackdowns which encompassed the press.
Western Europe: Western Europe continued to claim the highest level of press freedom worldwide. In 2005, 23 countries (92 percent) were rated Free and 2 (8 percent) were rated Partly Free. In 2003, Italy joined Turkey as the only countries in the region to be rated Partly Free, which was the first time since 1988 that media in an EU member state have been rated by the survey as Partly Free. In 2005 media freedom in Italy remained constrained by the dominant influence of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's media holdings.
Worst of the Worst
The five worst rated countries in 2005 continued to be Burma, Cuba, Libya, North Korea, and Turkmenistan. In these states, independent media are either nonexistent or barely able to operate, the role of the press is reduced to serving as a mouthpiece for the ruling regime, and citizens' access to unbiased information is severely limited.
Press freedom conditions also remained dire in Belarus, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, and Zimbabwe, where authoritarian governments used legal pressure, imprisonment, and other forms of harassment to severely curtail the ability of independent media to report freely.
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.