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April 27, 2010

Freedom of the Press 2010: Broad Setbacks to Global Media Freedom

Global press freedom declined in 2009, with setbacks registered in almost every region of the world, according a Freedom House study released today. The study, Freedom of the Press 2010: A Global Survey of Media Independence, reported that press freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year, producing a global landscape in which only one in six people live in countries with a Free press. Among the report’s key findings:

  • Significant declines outnumbered gains by a 2-to-1 margin. Notable regional declines were registered in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, as well as the Middle East.
  • Declines in important emerging democracies demonstrate the fragility of press freedom in such environments. Namibia and South Africa, two of the new democracies, dropped from Free to Partly Free. Worrying declines were also registered in Mexico, the Philippines, and Senegal.
  • The only region to show overall improvement was Asia-Pacific, spurred by notable gains in South Asia that included status changes in Bangladesh and Bhutan from Not Free to Partly Free and a numerical score jump for the Maldives.
  • Governments in China, Russia, Venezuela, and others have been systematically encroaching on the comparatively free environment of the internet and new media. Sophisticated techniques are being used to censor and block access to particular types of information, to flood the internet with antidemocratic, nationalistic views, and to provide broad surveillance of citizen activity.
  • Journalists are increasingly the victims of assault and murder, a trend fueled by impunity for past crimes.

“Freedom of expression is fundamental to all other freedoms. Rule of law, fair elections, minority rights, freedom of association, and accountable government all depend on an independent press which can fulfill its watchdog function,” said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House. “This is why these findings are so utterly disturbing. When the Iranian Revolutionary Guards torture a journalist, or Communist authorities in China imprison a blogger, or criminal elements in Russia assassinate yet another investigative reporter, it sends a clear message that every person fighting for basic rights is vulnerable to a similar fate.”

While a range of restrictive laws and violence against journalists continue to hamper media freedom, additional reasons for the global decline include the unique pressures placed on media in countries in the midst of political conflict, as well as intensified constraints on internet freedom. The globalization of censorship by countries such as China and international bodies such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference poses an additional threat to freedom of expression, as does the increasingly worrisome phenomenon of “libel tourism” centered on the United Kingdom.

30-Year Trends

In the 30 years since Freedom House began measuring global media freedom, the landscape has changed considerably:

  • In 1980, media freedom was concentrated in Western Europe; only 22 percent of the world’s countries enjoyed a rating of Free, while 53 percent were Not Free.
  • By 1990, the share of Not Free countries had declined to 47 percent; by 2000, it was just 35 percent.
  • Over the past decade, the positive momentum that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall has stalled, and in some cases has been reversed. For the past eight years, there have been gradual declines on a global scale, with the most pronounced setbacks taking place in Latin America and the former Soviet Union.

“Unfortunately, the positive changes seen in earlier decades have not been consolidated,” noted Karin Deutsch Karlekar, managing editor of the study. “While the media landscape around the world has opened considerably—due in part to the impact of privately owned and satellite broadcast media and the internet—both governments and nonstate actors have found new ways to restrict the independence of the media and the free flow of information.”

“The steps backwards taken by a number of the new democracies are particularly disturbing,” said Karlekar, citing the declines in Namibia, the Philippines, Senegal, and South Africa as examples. “Journalists in many countries cannot do their job without fear of repercussions.”

Key Regional Findings

The Americas:

Despite the lack of status changes during the year, overall decline in the region was apparent. The most significant declines were registered in Mexico and Honduras, which both hover on the cusp of the Not Free range. Other declines occurred in Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.


The Asia-Pacific region saw some of the most significant improvement in the study, including status changes from Not Free to Partly Free in Bangladesh and Bhutan. Improvements were also seen in the Maldives, India, East Timor, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Mongolia. Declines were noted in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Philippines, and Fiji. This region also continues to be the home of two of the survey’s poorest performers, North Korea and Burma, and the world’s largest poor performer, China.

Central and Eastern Europe/Former Soviet Union:

In 2009, the region overall underwent a modest decline, with most countries showing little or no change. In the non-Baltic former Soviet Union, where media freedoms are severely restricted, Russia remained among the world’s more repressive and most dangerous media environments. Kyrgyzstan’s score fell, continuing a multiyear negative trend. Ukraine, Armenia, and Moldova registered slight improvements. Apart from the former Soviet Union, modest declines were seen in Latvia and Lithuania, with even smaller negative movements in Estonia, Hungary, and Croatia.

Middle East and North Africa:

Iran registered the region’s biggest decline of the year due to the suppression of journalists in the wake of a seriously flawed presidential election. Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates also registered declines. Israel provided one of the few positive developments in the region, returning to Free from Partly Free status thanks to the removal of restrictions associated with the 2008 outbreak of war in the Gaza Strip, which had depressed the country’s ranking in the 2009 survey. In addition, Iraq saw another year of improvement as political bias declined and attacks on journalists decreased.

Sub-Saharan Africa:

The average regionwide level of press freedom declined significantly during 2009, representing the largest overall drop of any region in the survey. Africa saw two surprising status changes, with South Africa and Namibia both dropping from Free to Partly Free, leaving no Free countries in southern Africa for the first time since 1990. Meanwhile, Madagascar shifted into the Not Free category. Declines were also registered in Senegal, Niger, Guinea, Benin, Botswana, Togo, Guinea-Bissau, Gabon, Ethiopia, and The Gambia. Slight improvements were noted in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Sudan, and Mauritania.

Western Europe:

The region registered no status changes or significant numerical shifts in 2009, reflecting a largely steady level of media freedom in most countries. The United Kingdom remains a concern due to its expansive libel laws, while heavy media concentration and official interference in state-owned outlets continues to hold Italy at Partly Free.

Worst of the Worst

The world’s 10 worst-rated countries are Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. In these states, independent media are either nonexistent or barely able to operate, the press acts as a mouthpiece for the regime, citizens’ access to unbiased information is severely limited, and dissent is crushed through imprisonment, torture, and other forms of repression.

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.

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