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Overview Essay

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Press Freedom in 2001

Karin Deutsch Karlekar

Although the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the ensuing war on terrorism tested conditions for the media in a variety of ways, press freedom emerged intact by the end of 2001. This past year saw slight overall gains for press freedom as measured by the Freedom House ratings, which categorize countries as Free, Partly Free, or Not Free. In 2001, a higher number of countries, 75 (40%) out of 187 surveyed, rated Free than at any time in the past decade, improving upon last year’s total of 72. The number of countries rated Not Free, 61 (33%), is the lowest since 1996. Fifty countries (27%) are rated Partly Free in the current survey.

Significant improvements, as registered by a shift in category, outweighed significant declines during 2001. Four countries - Cape Verde, Ghana, Peru, and Vanuatu - moved up in category from Partly Free to Free, while Congo (Brazzaville) and Niger moved up from Not Free to Partly Free. There were only three negative category changes; Mongolia moved down from Free to Partly Free, and Bangladesh and Haiti moved down from Partly Free to Not Free.

Countries where press freedom markedly improved during 2001 represent diverse regions of the world. What most of them had in common, however, were recent changes in regime, in some cases effected at least in part by the work of independent journalists, that ushered in governments with a greater respect for civil liberties and the rule of law. In Ghana, a newly elected legislature supported constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression by unanimously repealing criminal libel and sedition laws, which had been used to imprison many journalists in years past. The news media in Peru gained from democratically-elected President Alejandro Toledo's efforts to restore the credibility and fairness of government. Numerous journalists who had been imprisoned for years were released, while the public ombudsman called for the repeal of "insult laws" under which many journalists had been charged with defamation. In Vanuatu, a new administration permits criticism of the government on state-run broadcasting. In addition, the prime minister allowed a British citizen, publisher of the island's only independent newspaper, to return after being deported by the previous government.

In two African countries, changes affecting the media in 2001 led to an improved rating of Partly Free. A new constitution adopted in September by the provisional parliament of Congo (Brazzaville) significantly improved the status of the news media and journalists by guaranteeing the basic right of press freedom. In addition, the 1996 Press Law was amended to no longer require prison terms for those convicted of defamation. In Niger, an overall decline in the number of press freedom violations during the year, coupled with the establishment of a Press Center in the capital of Niamey, pushed its rating upward in 2001.

Negative trends throughout the year led to three category downgrades. In Mongolia, indirect harassment of the press though libel lawsuits and tax audits was enough to push its rating into the Partly Free category. Bangladesh and Haiti were downgraded from Partly Free to Not Free this year. In both countries, the overt harassment of the press, tacitly supported and sometimes openly encouraged by the government or ruling party, increased in 2001.  Independent radio stations and newspapers in Haiti that criticized the government were targets of official intimidation and of orchestrated attacks by supporters of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In addition, the president was accused of stalling investigations into the murders of several journalists. In Bangladesh, efforts by government leaders, political party activists, and others to intimidate journalists who were targeted as a result of their reporting frequently occurred, and the number of violent attacks against journalists increased throughout the year. Such crimes have remained largely unpunished, primarily because of the links between the perpetrators and the two dominant political parties. In November, the new government arrested and began a treason investigation against leading journalist Shahriar Kabir after he filmed a documentary about Hindus who fled to India to escape post-election violence and intimidation. A particularly worrying factor in both of these countries is that there appears to be state-directed support for actions that threaten the safety of journalists and thus the independence of the press.

Events in 2001 focused attention on the Islamic world. An examination of countries that have majority Muslim populations demonstrates that in most, the media are Not Free. Out of 46 such countries, only one - Mali - has a free press. Fourteen (30%) have media that are Partly Free, while in 31 (67%) the media are Not Free. Given the importance of the press in shaping public attitudes towards one’s own government, as well as towards the actions of globally significant actors such as the United States or the Al-Qaida terrorist network, these figures deserve further attention.


Regional Trends

In Asia, five countries (21%) were ranked as Free, five (21%) were ranked as Partly Free, and 13 (54%) were ranked as Not Free. In addition to the category changes noted above, Sri Lanka registered a significant upswing as a result of the withdrawal of emergency regulations concerning media coverage of the civil war in May. This was offset by negative trends in Laos and Indonesia. In Laos, authorities introduced a new law requiring journalists to slant their coverage to favor the government and criminalized the publication of "misleading news" on the Internet. Indonesian journalists increasingly practiced self-censorship in response to a rising number of assaults at the hands of police and security forces, as well as threats from separatist and Islamic groups.

In the Pacific region, eleven countries (85%) have Free media and two (15%) have Partly Free media. In Fiji, a notably freer press reported on allegations of official corruption as well as covering the September elections, which returned parliamentary democracy to the island country. However, a sharp downgrade was noticed in Nauru, where a tightening of government control resulted in the placement of a ban on Agence France-Presse reporter Michael Field, who had been regularly covering Nauru's involvement in moneylaundering.

In Africa, out of a total of 53 countries, eight countries (15%) were rated as Free, 17 (32%) were rated as Partly Free, and 28 (53%) were rated as Not Free. Positive trends in 2001 were apparent in Algeria, Cote d'Ivoire, and Sierra Leone, largely due to a reduction in violence against and harassment of journalists by both government authorities and other groups. Nevertheless, these bright spots were counterbalanced by several significant downgrades. In Rwanda, the passage of a repressive press law, coupled with continuing threats directed at journalists, intensified the state's assault on the news media. Two abortive military coups in the Central African Republic further tightened controls over the flow of news and information. In a dramatic violation of press freedom in Eritrea, the government in September shut down all the nation's independent newspapers, banned all non-state print media, and arrested nine reporters. Conditions also worsened in Zimbabwe. In an effort to extend the government's control over the press and stifle all forms of criticism, President Mugabe's regime expelled foreign correspondents and targeted domestic journalists suspected of sympathizing with an opposition party. The independent Daily News, one of the staunchest critics of the government, suffered a series of attacks in 2001. At year's end, a draconian law intended to further curtail the operation of the news media had been introduced in the parliament.

In the Middle East, one country, Israel, has Free media, while two, Jordan and Kuwait, have Partly Free media. The media in the remaining eleven countries, or 79% of the total, are Not Free. Although no category changes occurred for the Middle East in 2001, Saudi Arabia did see an improvement within the category of Not Free. Although the ruling family still strictly controls news and information, observers noted that media outlets enjoyed increasing latitude in covering sensitive subjects such as unemployment or domestic violence. In addition, the American war on terrorism led to some domestic discussion of the royal family, its dependence on U.S. military forces, and the role of Islamic fundamentalism in worldwide terrorism. After a 40-year old ban on media unionization was lifted, Saudi journalists were permitted to form a trade union in 2001. Nevertheless, events in several other Middle Eastern countries resulted in worsened conditions for the press. Escalating violence between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers took its toll on journalists in the Occupied Territories and Palestinian Authority, who suffered serious abuses from both sides in the conflict. In Lebanon, a government crackdown on independent broadcasters continued, while individual journalists were subject to harassment as well as lawsuits and the threat of imprisonment. In Syria, the relaxation of controls over the media that began in 2000 came to an abrupt halt in September when President Bashar al-Assad banned news deemed to harm national security, the unity of society, or Syria's international ties.

Western Europe continued to boast the highest number of Free countries. Twenty of its 21 countries are Free, while one, Turkey, is Partly Free. Within the Free category, Austria registered a significant decline in 2001. Journalists were increasingly pressured by the government's plan to criminalize certain investigative press activities, as well as by a number of libel suits filed by political figures. Concerns were also raised by the increasing concentration of media ownership, which limited the pluralism of coverage.

Of the 27 countries of Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States, the media in nine (33%) are Free; in eleven (41%), Partly Free; and in seven (26%), Not Free. While no category changes took place in the region this year, there were considerable upgrades for a number of countries. In Croatia, the recently elected parliament further expanded the independence of both public and private news media. In Romania, parliament approved a law on free access to information of interest to the public in October. The situation of the media in Yugoslavia also continued to improve in 2001, with the opening of state-owned media outlets in Serbia to representatives of the former opposition bloc and the NGO sector.

In contrast, legal impediments coupled with increasing harassment of journalists led to a decline in press freedom in the Kyrgyz Republic. Russia and Ukraine remained just short of the Not Free category in 2001. The Kremlin continued to pressure media companies and journalists critical of the regime. Gazprom, the state-owned gas conglomerate, took control of Russia's major independent media group, Media-MOST, by acquiring its NTV television station. Gazprom also closed the newspaper Sevodnya, fired the staff of the weekly Itogi, and took over Ekho Moskvy radio, the last independent outlet of Media-MOST. The Russian military also imposed severe restrictions on journalists' access to the Chechen war zone. In Ukraine, the government of Leonid Kuchma frequently disregards constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and expression, especially during election seasons. In addition, violence directed at journalists is rarely prosecuted. The brutal murder of investigative journalist Heorhiy Gongadze remained unsolved in 2001.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, 19 countries (58%) were rated as Free, 12 (36%) as Partly Free, and 2 (6%) as Not Free. Improvements in press freedom took place in Chile, where a new press law repealed the controversial Article 6(b) of the State Security Law that criminalized those who "insulted" public officials. Another important court ruling upheld the public’s right to access information. In Mexico, newly elected President Vicente Fox vowed to end the long-established government practice of buying favorable press stories, and such incidences appeared to be on the wane in 2001. However, conditions for the media declined in Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez and his government repeatedly attacked the news media through harsh speeches, a court ruling that newspapers must state their political leanings, and threats to pass a "law on content" and revoke the license of a respected television network.

The media in both North American countries, the United States and Canada, remained Free but declined slightly. In the United States, the impact of the September 11 terrorist attacks somewhat limited media access and coverage. In Canada, the increasing concentration of media ownership raised concern.


Karin Deutsch Karlekar, a senior researcher at Freedom House, served as managing editor of the 2002 Annual Survey of Press Freedom. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge University.

Rosanna Roizin served as a research intern for this study and participated in all stages of the report’s preparation. Additional research, editing, and proofreading was conducted by Peter Doran, a research assistant at Freedom House.

The ratings for this report were determined by the Freedom House research team and were reviewed by a group of regional and country experts, including Martin Edwin Andersen (Latin America), Arch Puddington (North America), Edward McMahon and Cindy Shiner (Africa), Kristen Guida and Michael Goldfarb (Middle East), Karin Deutsch Karlekar and Charles Graybow (Asia), and Adrian Karatnycky, Amanda Schnetzer, Aili Piano, and Kendra Zaharescu (Eastern Europe and the NIS). This report also reflects the findings of the 2001-2002 Freedom House study Freedom in the World: The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties.