Overview Essay | Freedom House

Overview Essay

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Conditions for press freedom showed mixed results in 2005, as a combination of positive and negative trends left the overall global level of media independence registering only a slight decline from the previous year. Improvements in press freedom due to politically driven change were noted in countries in the former Soviet Union such as Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, as well as in a number of countries in West Africa, including Liberia and Mauritania. A positive regional trend continued in the Middle East and North Africa, although this was seen as a result primarily of the impact of pan-Arab electronic media, rather than specific actions taken by the governments of the region to liberalize the environment for the press. However, these gains were outweighed by setbacks in a number of key countries in Africa and Asia, including some that had previously registered improvements and had been seen to be moving on a positive trend line. The most significant declines of 2005 occurred in the Asian countries of East Timor, Nepal, the Philippines, and Thailand and the Sub-Saharan African countries of Botswana, Ethiopia, and Uganda. This deterioration in press freedom, particularly in countries that had made overall democratic progress (including in press freedom) in the past, underscored the need to remain vigilant about the erosion of press freedom in countries with democratically elected governments.

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. Ratings reflect not just government actions and policies, but the behavior of the press itself in testing boundaries, even in more restrictive environments. 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 2005, out of 194 countries and territories surveyed, 73 countries (38 percent) were rated Free, 54 (28 percent) were rated Partly Free, and 67 (34 percent) were rated Not Free (comparable numbers for the previous survey were 75 Free countries, 50 Partly Free countries, and 69 Not Free countries). Category shifts in 2005 suggested a trend of convergence toward the middle Partly Free category. Overall, 2 countries, East Timor and Botswana, moved from Free to Partly Free, while 2 countries, Kenya and Mauritania, improved from Not Free to Partly 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 40 percent have a Partly Free press and 43 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 limiting the percentage of people worldwide who have access to Free media. Over the past year, the percentage of those enjoying Free media has declined slightly, while the percentage of people who live in countries with a Not Free media environment has decreased by two percentage points, which indicates that more countries are moving into the "gray zone" of partial media freedom.

The overall level of press freedom worldwide, as measured by the global average score, worsened slightly in 2005 to 46.05, continuing a four-year downward trend. Both the overall global average score and the global averages for the legal and political environment categories worsened, with the political environment category showing a particular decline.

The five worst-rated countries in 2005 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 2005. Just under half the countries in the region have media that remain classified as Free, although this includes the Caribbean, whose countries generally have very open media environments, which offsets the less rosy picture in Central and South America. During the past four years, the percentage of countries whose media are classified as Free has slipped from 60 percent to 49 percent. More worrisome, in a pattern of continued decline in media freedom in the Americas over the past 15 years, the number of Free countries has dropped from 23 in 1990 to 17 in 2005, the most significant decline for any region. Countries of particular concern continue to be Cuba, which has one of the most repressive media environments worldwide; Venezuela, where the government of President Hugo Chavez has continued its efforts to control the press; Colombia, where high levels of violence and intimidation against journalists have led to increased self-censorship; and Haiti, where media freedom remains tested by political polarization and instability.

No category shifts occurred in the Americas in 2005. However, a number of countries, most notably Mexico and Argentina, showed negative trends. A continuing high level of attacks against journalists-as well as official apathy toward prosecuting the perpetrators-negatively impacted Mexico's numerical rating. In addition, the passage of a new law in the lower house in December may heighten concentration of ownership in the television sector, which is already dominated by the Televisa network. Economic pressures against media also worsened in Argentina, where the use of official advertising at both national and state levels to influence media coverage by rewarding supportive outlets and punishing critical ones reached new heights.

Although the United States continues to be one of the better performers in the survey, media freedom was tested in 2005 by several cases in which legal authorities tried to compel journalists to reveal confidential sources or provide access to research material in the course of criminal investigations. As a result of the ongoing investigation into the leaking of a CIA officer's name to the press, journalist Judith Miller spent several months in jail after she refused to cooperate with prosecutors and reveal her sources. Also during the year, the administration of President George W. Bush was found to have violated federal law by providing monetary grants to journalists in return for favorable coverage of domestic policy initiatives.

Asia-Pacific: The Asia-Pacific region as a whole 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. 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. The regionwide figures also disguise considerable sub-regional diversity; for example, the Pacific islands and Australasia continue to have among the best ranked media environments worldwide, while conditions in South and Southeast Asia are significantly poorer. Asia is home to two of the worst-rated countries in the world, Burma and North Korea, which have extremely repressive media environments, as well as several other bad performers such as China, Laos, and Vietnam, all of which use state or party control of the press as the primary tool to restrict media freedom.

In 2005, East Timor's rating was lowered from Free to Partly Free, and several other countries exhibited negative numerical trends, including Nepal, the Philippines, and Thailand. Nevertheless, modest positive improvements were seen in Tonga. East Timor, which has been ranked as Free since its transition to independence, saw backsliding in the media environment during 2005 and was downgraded to Partly Free, primarily because of the passage of a new penal code that contained severe punishments, including prison sentences, for defamation. In addition, authorities engaged in sustained harassment of the Suara Timor Lorosae, a leading independent newspaper.

Two other important Southeast Asian countries also saw numerical declines. A continued high level of physical violence directed against reporters in the Philippines, coupled with increasing official intolerance toward members of the press who practice investigative journalism, negatively impacted press freedom during the year. 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 in 2005.

Conditions for the Nepali media, which had already declined substantially as a result of a heightened state of conflict in which journalists were caught between government forces and Maoist insurgents, worsened further in 2005. In addition to intimidation and attacks carried out by both sides, media faced considerable 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, the downward trend noted in the past several years has stabilized, with no category shifts occurring in 2005. In this year's survey, 8 countries (30 percent) remain classified as Free, 9 (33 percent) as Partly Free, and 10 (37 percent) as Not Free. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe, many of which have joined the European Union, have established open media environments and continued to perform well in period under review, in contrast with conditions in the former Soviet Union, in which further declines were apparent, particularly in Russia and Uzbekistan. 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 myriad forms of pressure to restrict critical coverage. These trends 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. Aside from a news blackout surrounding the events themselves, authorities took steps during the year to shutter the few remaining Western-funded media outlets and training centers, such as the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Internews, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the BBC.

However, bright spots were noted in the case of Ukraine, which was upgraded from Not Free to Partly Free in 2004 and saw further positive numerical movement during 2005. Despite continuing concerns over more subtle forms of pressure exerted by media owners and a seeming unwillingness by authorities to vigorously pursue cases such as the Gongadze murder, media freedom has improved considerably and there is a much lower level of direct official interference with press content. Kyrgyzstan similarly saw an opening of its media environment following the fall of the Akayev government in March 2005, but the ensuing political turmoil and the new government's failure to follow through on pledges to reform the media laws and privatize state-owned media meant that these openings remain tenuous.

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 in 2005. Generally, media in the region remain constrained by extremely restrictive legal environments, in which laws concerning libel and defamation, the insult of monarchs and public figures, and emergency legislation continue to hamper the ability of journalists to write freely. Of particular concern continue to be Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and the Israeli-Occupied Territories/Palestinian Authority, where media freedom remained extremely restricted during the year. Conditions in Iran deteriorated further as authorities cracked down on independent media outlets and journalists, increasingly targeting internet-based sources of information.

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 volatile political situation in Iraq remained highly dangerous for media workers, with more than 20 journalists and media workers, mostly Iraqis, killed during the year.

Nevertheless, during the last several years there have been overall improvements in press freedom in the region as a whole as measured by the average regionwide numerical score. The continued spread and influence of pan-Arab satellite television networks has led to greater openness in the media environment throughout the entire region, particularly in countries such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Mostly government-controlled domestic broadcast outlets have been forced to compete with channels such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, which provide citizens with alternative and uncensored sources of information. Although the internet is censored to varying degrees in many countries in the region, the growth of internet-based sources of information such as websites and blogs that discuss political and social issues has also contributed to this expansion of freedom. Print media have also become more critical and, in Egypt, have benefited from the fact that during 2005 they operated in a somewhat freer political environment in which scrutiny of the government was tolerated by the authorities. Journalists in several countries have in fact taken the lead in pushing the boundaries of acceptable coverage, even when faced with violence or, more commonly, legal reprisals.

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, 7 countries (14.5 percent) were rated Free, 19 (39.5 percent) were rated Partly Free, and 22 (46 percent) remain rated Not Free. Press freedom conditions continue to be dire in Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, 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. During the year, the Zimbabwean government passed legislation that further restricted journalists' right to operate freely, as well as curtailing both foreign and local journalists' ability to report on important political events such as the March parliamentary elections and a controversial urban housing demolition drive that began in May. Conditions in The Gambia, which had seen a substantial numerical decline in 2004, remained extremely troubled, with the independent print press all but unable to operate.

In 2005, Botswana was downgraded from Free to Partly Free, while Kenya and Mauritania were upgraded from Not Free to Partly Free. Botswana, whose numerical score already placed it at the bottom of the Free category, was downgraded to Partly Free in 2005 following the expulsion of two journalists, allegedly as a result of their reporting. The expulsions took place in 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.

In Mauritania, dramatic political changes that occurred after a bloodless coup also ushered in positive changes for the media environment. Mauritania's press freedom rating was upgraded to Partly Free as a result of the relaxation of draconian press laws and an opening of state-run media to more diverse opinions under the new transition government. Kenya, which had been downgraded in 2004, saw its numerical score improve slightly and its rating improve from Not Free to Partly Free as a result of a decrease in the number of cases of extralegal intimidation of journalists. Over the past several years, there has also been a promising opening of the broadcast sector in Kenya, seen most notably in the growth of independent and community-based radio stations.

Positive numerical trends were noted in several West African countries during the year, mostly as a result of political changes that led to improvements in the media environment. Following the election of a new government in Guinea-Bissau, legal guarantees for freedom of expression were largely upheld and there were few instances of harassment of the press. Similarly, in Liberia, under both the transition government and the new government elected in November, harassment of journalists and media outlets has declined significantly, and reporters were allowed to freely cover political events, including the elections. Meanwhile, conditions for the media improved in neighboring Guinea, largely as a result of positive steps taken by President Lansana Conte, who approved the opening of the broadcast sector to private outlets, as well as personally intervening to reverse instances of harassment of journalists.

However, these gains were outweighed by declines in a number of key countries, many of which had hitherto been on a more positive trajectory in terms of both expanded democratic openings in general and press freedom in particular. In both Ethiopia and Uganda, governmental fear of potential opposition gains in elections led to broad political crackdowns that encompassed the press. Following the disputed May 2005 national elections and renewed violence between opposition supporters and troops in November, Ethiopian authorities targeted those media outlets that they felt were overly allied with the opposition, jailing and charging many journalists and shutting down the majority of the Amharic-language print press. Pressures on the media also increased in Uganda in the run-up to the February 2006 presidential election, when a number of outlets were instructed to refrain from reporting on key political developments such as the trial of opposition leader Kizza Besigye or the civil war; several journalists currently face serious legal charges. In Senegal, watchdog groups expressed concern regarding the growing number of threats against media outlets that discuss sensitive topics such as the separatist Casamance region or criticize local governments; a number of newspapers and radio stations faced shutdown orders or other forms of harassment during 2005. Togo's score also slipped backward during the year owing to increased violence targeting journalists in the wake of the February coup and to a media blackout imposed during the April elections.

Western Europe: Western Europe continued to boast 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 a European Union 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. Although not leading to any significant changes in numerical score in the countries under review, press freedom principles were tested in Europe during the year by the controversy that emerged following the publication of the Muhammad cartoons in Denmark in September 2005. For a more detailed discussion of this issue, an essay on the impact of the "cartoon wars" on freedom of expression has been included in this volume.

Karin Deutsch Karlekar, a senior researcher at Freedom House, served as managing editor of this year’s survey. Eleanor Marchant served as assistant editor and was involved in all stages of the research, writing, and editing process. Extensive research, editorial, proofreading, and administrative assistance was provided by Astrid Larson, Thomas Webb, Sarah Cussen, Genevieve LaForge, and Raffael Himmelsbach. Anne Green, of Greenways Graphic Design, was responsible for the design and layout of the book, while Sona Vogel served as the principal copy editor. Overall guidance for the project was provided by Arch Puddington, director of research, and by Christopher Walker, director of studies.

We are grateful for the insights provided by those who served on this year’s review team, including Freedom House staff members Jennifer Windsor, Thomas Melia, Arch Puddington, Christopher Walker, Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Mark Rosenberg, Eleanor Marchant, Dapo Olorunyomi, Mariam Memarsadeghi, Dima Malhas, and Sanaz Mirzaei, as well as Marwan Sadiq of the International Center for Journalists. In addition, the ratings and narratives were reviewed by a number of Freedom House staff based in our overseas offices, including Mike Staresinic of the FH–Serbia office, Kristie Evenson and Viktoria Villanyi of the FH–Budapest office, Cristina Guseth of the FH–Romania office, and Frances Abouzeid and the staff of the FH–Jordan office. This report also reflects the findings of the Freedom House study Freedom in the World 2006: The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties. Statistics on internet usage were taken from www.internetworldstats.com.