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Overview Essay

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Press Freedom in 2004

by Karin Deutsch Karlekar


Press freedom saw modest gains in a number of key countries, including Ukraine and Lebanon, which received status upgrades in 2004. Several countries in the Middle East and North Africa region also showed positive trends. However, these improvements were outweighed by a worsening in the overall level of press freedom worldwide as measured by the global average score, continuing a three-year trend of decline. Notable setbacks occurred in the United States and elsewhere in the Americas, while increased restrictions were also detected in parts of Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the former Soviet Union.

The annual Freedom of the Press survey assesses the degree of print, broadcast, and Internet freedom in every country in the world, analyzing events that take place during each calendar year. 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. Under the legal category, we assess the laws and regulations that could influence media content as well as the government’s inclination to use these laws and legal institutions to restrict the media’s ability to operate. The political category encompasses a variety of issues, including editorial pressure by the government or other actors, censorship and self-censorship, the ability of reporters to cover the news, and the extralegal intimidation of and violence against journalists. Finally, under the economic category we examine issues such as the structure, transparency, and concentration of media ownership; costs of production and distribution; and the impact of advertising, subsidies, and bribery on content. The survey provides a numerical rating from 0 (the most free) to 100 (the least free) for each country and categorizes the level of press freedom as “Free,” “Partly Free,” or “Not Free” based on each country’s numerical rating. 

In 2004, out of 194 countries and territories surveyed, 75 countries (39 percent) were rated Free, 50 (26 percent) were rated Partly Free, and 69 (35 percent) were rated Not Free. The year saw a slight improvement in press freedom worldwide as measured by a shift in category. Overall, 1 country, Namibia, moved from Partly Free to Free, while 4 countries (Guatemala, Guinea-Bissau, Lebanon, and Ukraine) improved from Not Free to Partly Free. Only 2 countries—Kenya and Pakistan—registered a negative category shift in 2004 from Partly Free to Not Free.

In terms of population, the survey found that 17 percent of the world’s inhabitants live in countries that enjoy a Free press, while 38 percent have a Partly Free press and 45 percent have a Not Free press. The relatively negative picture painted by examining population figures can be explained by the fact that China, with its large population, is rated Not Free, and the almost equally populous country of India is rated Partly Free, thus vastly decreasing the percentage of people worldwide who have access to Free media. This situation represents a decline over the past year, as the percentage of people who live in countries with a Not Free media environment has increased by two points.

The overall level of press freedom worldwide, as measured by the global average score, also worsened in 2004 to 45.94, continuing a three-year downward trend. Both the overall global average score and the averages for the political and economic categories worsened, with the political environment category showing a particular decline.

The five worst-rated countries in 2004 continue 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 to act as a mouthpiece for the ruling regime, and citizens’ access to unbiased information is severely limited. The numerical scores for these five countries have barely changed in relation to the previous year, reflecting a level of extreme repression and stagnation for the media.

Regional Trends

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 2004. Although just under half the countries in the region have media that remain classified as Free, during the past four years the percentage of countries whose media are classified as Free has slipped from 60 percent to 49 percent. The year 2004 presented a mixed picture. Positive movement was seen in the cases of Guatemala, which was upgraded from Not Free to Partly Free, and Haiti, which registered a significant numerical improvement.  However, negative trends were noted in a number of countries, particularly Argentina, Mexico, Peru, the United States, and Venezuela.

Guatemala, which had been downgraded in 2003, was moved back to being rated Partly Free in 2004. An atmosphere of increasing tension between the press and the previous administration was reversed in January 2004 with the inauguration of President Oscar Berger. Attacks against and intimidation of the media decreased, while the new administration promised to address the prevailing atmosphere of impunity. Gains were also seen in Haiti, which registered a substantial numerical improvement in 2004 following the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s regime in February. Although media freedom in Haiti remains curtailed by ongoing political instability and violence, as well as a crumbling economy, there has been less official harassment of the press under the new interim government.

Nevertheless, negative movements in a number of countries in the Americas during 2004 outweighed these improvements. In Argentina, selective disbursal of official advertising is used to induce the privately owned press to produce less critical coverage, while a pro-government paper censored an investigative report on alleged official corruption by one of its own journalists during the year. In Mexico, a dramatic increase in attacks against the press—including four murders of journalists during the year, the highest number in the region—led to a decline in score for 2004. Meanwhile, Peru saw further backsliding as journalists came under pressure from defamation lawsuits and other forms of legal harassment, as well as an increase in threats and physical attacks. Reporters in the rural areas as well as those who investigate stories concerning local corruption were particularly vulnerable to these forms of intimidation. Press freedom in Venezuela was further circumscribed in 2004 by a new media content law, passed in December, that mandated large fines and closures for media outlets that air various forms of prohibited content, while tensions remained high between the Chavez government and the mostly pro-opposition private press.

The United States continues to be one of the better performers in the survey. Nevertheless, media freedom was tested during the year by a number of legal cases in which prosecutors sought to compel journalists to reveal sources or turn over to the courts notes or other material they had gathered in the course of their investigations. Additionally, doubts concerning official influence over media content emerged with the disclosures that several political commentators received grants from federal agencies and that the Bush administration had significantly increased the practice of distributing government-produced news segments.

Asia-Pacific: The Asia-Pacific region exhibited a relatively high level of freedom, with 18 countries (45 percent) rated Free, 7 (17.5 percent) rated Partly Free, and 15 (37.5 percent) rated Not Free. When one examines the figures in terms of population, the outlook is less positive; only 7 percent of the region’s population had access to Free media in 2004. However, this is due primarily to the fact that China, with its large population, continues to be ranked Not Free, while India is rated Partly Free. Asia is also home to two of the worst-rated countries in the world, Burma and North Korea, which have extremely repressive media environments. In 2004, Pakistan’s rating was lowered from Partly Free to Not Free, and several other countries exhibited negative numerical trends, including Nepal, Indonesia, and Thailand. Nevertheless, modest positive improvements were seen in Afghanistan, while Tonga’s sharp 2003 decline was somewhat reversed in 2004.

In a setback for press freedom, Pakistan’s rating dropped from Partly Free to Not Free to reflect increased harassment of journalists and media outlets by the authorities as well as the passage of a bill that increased penalties for defamation. Over the past two years, military authorities have used increasingly aggressive tactics to silence critical or investigative voices in the media; a number of journalists have been pressured to resign from prominent publications, charged with sedition, or arrested and intimidated by intelligence officials while in custody; and several media outlets have been shut down.

Conditions for the media deteriorated further in Nepal as members of the press were caught in the middle of a brutal civil war between the government and a Maoist insurgency and faced increased intimidation and attacks from both sides during the year. Press freedom in Thailand declined further in 2004 as editors and publishers faced increased pressure from the government in the form of defamation lawsuits and more subtle forms of editorial interference and economic pressure. Likewise, in Indonesia journalists were increasingly subject to civil and criminal libel suits during the year. In addition, media freedom regressed somewhat because of restrictions on reporting in Aceh and a number of assaults, including mob attacks, on editorial offices.

Some positive trends in Asia were noted in the case of Afghanistan, where the adoption of a new constitution in January 2004 led to increased legal protections for the press and the right to free expression. Similarly, numerical gains were noted in Tonga, where the Supreme Court struck down a restrictive 2003 media law on the grounds that it was incompatible with guarantees for freedom of expression found in the constitution.

Central and Eastern Europe/Former Soviet Union: In Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the downward trend noted in the past two years stabilized somewhat in 2004. In this year’s survey, 8 countries (30 percent) were classified as Free, 9 (33 percent) as Partly Free, and 10 (37 percent) as Not Free. The situation for the press in Central Asia, and to a lesser extent the Caucasus, remains deeply troubled, while the authoritarian governments of Belarus and Turkmenistan continue to provide extremely repressive environments for the media. Russia remained in the Not Free category after being downgraded in 2003 in the wake of government consolidation of broadcast media and the use of legislative and financial pressures to restrict critical coverage, particularly on sensitive topics such as the war in Chechnya.

However, in a positive development, Ukraine, which had been downgraded to Not Free in the 2003 survey, reversed course following the November 2004 Orange Revolution and was upgraded to once again be rated Partly Free. As thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets in late November to protest the fraudulent presidential election, journalists conducted a rebellion of their own, denouncing official censorship and intimidation and refusing to broadcast only pro-government views. The increased presence of independent and objective voices in both the print and broadcast media, as well as the positive attitude of the new government toward promoting press freedom, was cause for cautious optimism at year’s end.

Middle East and North Africa: The Middle East and North Africa region continued to show the lowest regionwide ratings, with 1 country (5 percent) rated Free, 2 (11 percent) rated Partly Free, and 16 (84 percent) rated Not Free. Nevertheless, during the last two years there has been a small expansion in press freedom in the region as a whole as measured by the average regionwide total numerical score. In 2004, Lebanon was upgraded from Not Free to Partly Free, and modest numerical improvements were noted in Egypt. However, negative trends were observed in Yemen and in Iraq, which saw some slippage from its large numerical improvement during 2003.

A greater diversity in the private media market, particularly the broadcast media, led to Lebanon being upgraded from Not Free to Partly Free in 2004. In addition, the press began to issue stronger criticisms of the government toward the end of the year. Modest numerical improvements were noted in Egypt, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates as the continued explosive growth of pan-Arab satellite television channels provided inhabitants of the region with more diverse and unfiltered news. Greater diversity of outlets, and in particular access to satellite television and to the Internet, has considerably increased Egyptians’ access to alternative sources of news and eroded the government’s monopoly on controlling local and international information. During the year, Egyptian media were also able to operate in an atmosphere of somewhat freer legal and political environment.

In contrast, press freedom in Yemen deteriorated during the year as the result of a crackdown against the media in which the government closed several newspapers and jailed a prominent journalist. Backsliding was also seen in the case of Iraq, which registered significant numerical gains in 2003. Political instability and escalating violence led to the deaths of 15 Iraqi and foreign journalists and 16 media workers during the year, while unanswered questions about the power and role of new institutions created to regulate the media also continued to constrain press freedom. 

Sub-Saharan Africa: The greatest movement in this year’s survey took place in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 1 country declined in category while 2 countries registered positive category shifts. Overall, 8 countries (17 percent) were rated Free, 16 (33 percent) were rated Partly Free, and 24 (50 percent) remain rated Not Free. In 2004, Kenya was downgraded from Partly Free to Not Free, while negative trends were noted in Cote d’Ivoire and The Gambia. However, Namibia was upgraded from Partly Free to Free, and Guinea-Bissau was upgraded from Not Free to Partly Free. Togo also registered a small but positive numerical shift during the year. Press freedom conditions continue to be dire in Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, where authoritarian governments use legal pressure, imprisonment, and other forms of harassment to sharply curtail the ability of independent media outlets to report freely.

Kenya, a country that had been upgraded in 2003 during its democratic transition, returned to the Not Free category following a government crackdown on the tabloid press at the start of 2004. The Kenyan government also failed to liberalize the country’s draconian media laws. The passage of restrictive media legislation in December, coupled with increased official intimidation of members of the press that culminated in the murder of a journalist in December, caused a substantial numerical decline in The Gambia in 2004. Negative trends were also noted in Cote d’Ivoire, where journalists were subject to increased harassment and intimidation amid escalating tension between government and rebel forces.

A generally stable and open environment for the press in which serious abuses against journalists have declined caused Namibia’s rating to be upgraded from Partly Free to Free. Meanwhile, a change of government in Guinea-Bissau led to an easing of conditions for the press in 2004 in which a previously shuttered private radio station could reopen and journalists could work without fear of arrest or dismissal. In Togo, a generally repressive regime bowed to pressure from the European Union (EU) and passed positive amendments to an extremely restrictive media law, which led to a modest improvement in the country’s numerical score.

Western Europe: Western Europe continued to boast the highest level of press freedom worldwide; in 2004, 23 countries (92 percent) were rated Free and 2 (8 percent) were rated Partly Free. Nevertheless, in 2003 Italy joined Turkey as the only countries in the region to be rated Partly Free. It was the first time since 1988 that media in an EU member state have been rated by the survey as Partly Free, and in 2004 media freedom in Italy remained constrained by the dominant influence of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s media holdings. During the year, the media environment in most countries remained stable, while Turkey saw a modest numerical improvement. A new press code, coupled with revisions made to the penal code in September, has led to an easing of the legal environment for the Turkish press during the year.

A “Not Free” Country with Vibrant Media?

One of the apparent contradictions in the survey is how a country can be ranked Not Free and also enjoy independent media outlets that are able to publish what they wish. A number of countries that are designated Not Free and score in the 61 to 70 numerical range do indeed have some vibrant media. In 2004, two countries that exemplify this paradox—Kenya and Pakistan—were downgraded to the Not Free category. While at first glance this designation would seem to be inaccurate, there are several explanations for it when seen in the context of the survey’s framework. The first caveat is that not all Not Free countries are equally repressive; this general category designation covers a wide range of numerical scores—from a country such as Kenya (61 points) to one such as North Korea (97 points)—and obviously these two countries have vastly different levels of press freedom that their respective numerical scores represent.

In addition, while the survey does measure media vibrancy and the ability of print and broadcast outlets to report on a wide variety of themes and to reflect different viewpoints, these issues are covered by only a portion of the survey’s 23 methodology questions overall. If a country scores badly on enough of the other survey questions, it may tip over into the Not Free category regardless of the presence of vibrant media within its borders. Another point to bear in mind is that under the survey’s scope, all forms of news media as well as their reach and impact within a country are examined. In the vast majority of countries, particularly in the developing world, the print media are substantially freer than the broadcast sector, which in many cases has remained under the control of the state. Therefore, the existence of a coterie of independent newspapers, each with a small subscription base, whose reach is confined largely to elites within urban centers must be balanced in our ratings against the strength and impact of radio and television networks whose coverage is considerably less free and balanced but which reach a much higher percentage of the population.

Paradoxically, the existence of vibrant media may actually reduce a country’s overall level of press freedom. If more media outlets are reporting on sensitive issues such as official corruption, ethnic or religious tension, or human rights, their staff are often more liable to be subject to either legal or physical harassment at the hands of government agents or other actors, all issues that are examined in our survey questions. For example, Colombia and Bangladesh, where the level of violent intimidation of the press is extremely high, score badly enough to be placed in the Not Free category despite the presence of outspoken independent newspapers in both countries. In other countries such as Algeria or Ethiopia, press outspokenness has been met with increased levels of legal prosecution against media professionals, which in turn also negatively impacts a country’s overall numerical score.

In the cases of Kenya and Pakistan, a combination of factors contributed to their Not Free ratings. Although Kenya has had greater political openness following the election of a new government in December 2002, the legal environment for the media has not yet been reformed despite official promises to do so. Criminal defamation laws, security laws, and onerous registration requirements continue to constrain the press. In addition to a crackdown on the tabloid press at the beginning of 2004, other cases of official harassment and extralegal intimidation are regularly reported. The government-controlled Kenya Broadcasting Corporation dominates the broadcast sector and provides sometimes-slanted coverage, while significant levels of corruption also affect media content.

 Although the military government headed by General Pervez Musharraf initially had a generally lenient attitude toward the Pakistani press, this has evaporated over the past several years as his regime has become more intolerant of criticism and investigative reporting. Journalists who cover sensitive topics have been pressured to resign, detained and threatened by the intelligence services, or arrested and charged with sedition. Blasphemy laws as well as newly strengthened defamation legislation also pose a threat to press freedom. State-owned news media continue to dominate the broadcast sector, and the government also exerts pressure on independent media through selective allocation of advertising and outright bribery.

In conclusion, although media vibrancy is an essential component of press freedom, the overall level of media independence in each country is influenced by a variety of factors that, taken together, comprise the broader entire “enabling environment” for the media. Our research has shown that in many countries inadequate legal protections, coupled with moderate or high levels of intimidation by either the government or other actors, can combine to place a country in the Not Free category despite the presence of a vibrant independent print media sector.