April 27, 2005
Study Finds Decline in Global Press Freedom
Despite Some Gains, Setbacks in a Number of Key Countries, Including the United States
While press freedom registered important gains in some key countries in 2004, notable setbacks occurred in the United States and elsewhere in the Americas, according to a major study released today by Freedom House. Increased restrictions were also detected in parts of Asia, Africa, and the former Soviet Union.
The study, “Freedom of the Press 2005: A Global Survey of Media Independence,” revealed that gains outnumbered setbacks, as measured by shifts among the survey’s three main categories: Free, Partly Free and Not Free. Improvements took place in countries where new democratic openings have been achieved or are burgeoning, such as in Ukraine and Lebanon. Several countries in the Middle East showed positive trends.
However, the overall level of press freedom worldwide—as measured by global average score—worsened, continuing a three-year downward trend according to the survey. Notable setbacks took place in Pakistan, Kenya, Mexico, Venezuela, and in the world’s most powerful democracy, the United States.
While the United States remained one of the strongest performers in the survey, its numerical score declined due to a number of legal cases in which prosecutors sought to compel journalists to reveal sources or turn over notes or other material they had gathered in the course of 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.
“Even in established democracies, press freedom should not be taken for granted,” said Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor. “It must be defended and nurtured.”
Data from the report and detailed country narratives are available online at //www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/freedom-press-2005
The report was released in advance of World Press Freedom Day, on May 3.
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 analyzes events during the 2004 calendar year.
Out of the 194 countries and territories examined, 75 (39 percent) were rated Free, while 50 (26 percent) were rated Partly Free and 69 (35 percent) were rated Not Free.
According to the survey, five countries improved in category while two declined. In addition to Ukraine and Lebanon, Guatemala and Guinea-Bissau moved from Not Free to Partly Free, while Namibia moved from Partly Free to Free. Only two countries— Pakistan and Kenya—registered a negative category shift in 2004, moving from Partly Free to Not Free.
“The Kenya example serves as a reminder that gains in press freedom can be easily and quickly reversed, especially in countries where democracy has yet to be fully consolidated,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, the survey’s managing editor. “And it is in these countries where a free press is a crucial ingredient for a successful transition to democracy.”
Ukraine moved from Not Free to Partly Free after a popular, democratic revolution led to the relaxation of pressures on the media. Lebanon moved from Not Free to Partly Free as a result of increased diversification of private media. Other, subtler gains were noted in the Middle East, in contrast to setbacks in the Americas, Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and the former Soviet Union.
In terms of population, 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. 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 2 percent.
“Most of the world’s citizens do not live in countries that enjoy vibrant, open, and unrestricted media,” said Ms. Windsor. “Therefore, it is critically important that democratic countries remain vigilant in upholding press freedom at home while actively encouraging it abroad.”
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 fewer than half the countries in the region have media that remain classified as Free, the percentage of countries whose media are classified as Free has slipped from 60 percent to 49 percent during the past four years.
The year 2004 presented a mixed picture in the Americas. Guatemala improved from Not Free to Partly Free after the inauguration of President Oscar Berger led to an alleviation of media intimidation. Numerical gains were also registered in Haiti following the ouster in February of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s regime.
In addition to the United States, setbacks took place in Argentina, Peru, Mexico—where four journalists were killed in 2004—and Venezuela, where a new media law was passed that mandated large fines for broadcasting various forms of “prohibited” content.
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. In population terms, the outlook is less positive; only seven percent of Asia’s population had access to Free media in 2004, primarily because of Not Free China’s large population. Asia is also home to two of the worst rated countries in the world, Burma and North Korea, which have extremely repressive media environments.
Pakistan dropped from Partly Free to Not Free because of increased official harassment of journalists and media outlets, in addition to passage of a bill that increased penalties for defamation. The moves followed other aggressive measures taken over the last two years by military authorities 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. Conditions also worsened in Nepal, where members of the press continued to be caught in the middle of a brutal civil war between government forces and Maoist insurgents. In Thailand, numerical declines were registered due to defamation lawsuits filed against editors and publishers. Indonesia’s score declined because journalists were increasingly subject to civil and criminal libel suits during the year and were prevented from reporting events from the restive province of Aceh, where mobs attacked editorial offices. Positive trends were noted in Afghanistan, where the adoption of a new constitution in January led to increased legal protections for the press and the right to free expression.
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.
The situation for the press in the former Soviet Union remained deeply troubled in 2004. 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. Media in Central Asia remained severely repressed in 2004. However, in a positive development in the former Soviet sphere, Ukraine, which had been downgraded to Not Free in the 2003 survey, reversed course following the November 2004 “Orange Revolution” and was upgraded to Partly Free.
Middle East and North Africa: The Middle East and North Africa 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.
In addition to Lebanon’s upgrade from Not Free to Partly Free, the Middle East in 2004 showed an overall improvement as measured by regional average score. Modest numerical improvements were noted in Egypt, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, as the continued explosive growth of Arab satellite television provided inhabitants of the region with more diverse and unfiltered news. However, negative trends were observed in Yemen, where a crackdown against the media led to the closure of several newspapers and the jailing of a prominent journalist. Backsliding also took place in Iraq, which registered significant numerical gains in 2003. Political instability and escalating violence in 2004 led to the deaths of over two dozen Iraqi and foreign journalists and media workers, 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: Overall, 8 countries (17 percent) were rated Free, 16 (33 percent) were rated Partly Free, and 24 (50 percent) remain rated Not Free.
The greatest movement in this year’s survey took place in Sub-Saharan Africa. 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 led to a numerical decline in The Gambia. Negative trends were noted in Cote d’Ivoire, where journalists were subject to increased harassment and intimidation amid escalating tension between government and rebel forces. However, Namibia was upgraded from Partly Free to Free with the decline of abuses against journalists, and Guinea-Bissau was upgraded from Not Free to Partly Free after a change in government led to an easing of conditions for the press. Togo also registered a small numerical improvement during the year after the government passed positive amendments to an extremely restrictive media law.
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.
The media environment in most countries remained stable, while Turkey, which is Partly Free, saw a modest numerical improvement during the year. Press freedom in Italy, which was downgraded to Partly Free in 2003, remained constrained by the dominant influence of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s media holdings.
Worst of the Worst
The five worst rated countries in 2004 were 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, Sudan, Uzbekistan, 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.