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Americas: Violence, Intimidation Behind Downward Trajectory

As journalists faced violence and intimidation from both government authorities and criminal elements, several countries in the Americas, including Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela, received their worst press freedom scores in over a decade. The regional average score fell to its lowest level of the past five years, with declines across the legal, political, and economic categories.

The overall figures for the Americas are significantly influenced by the open media environments of North America and much of the Caribbean, which tend to offset the less rosy picture in Central and South America. In Latin America, meaning the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking parts of the region, only three (15 percent) of the countries were rated Free, and just 2 percent of the population lived in Free media environments.

Despite the diplomatic opening between the United States and Cuba and the resulting release of over 50 political prisoners in late December, journalists were still behind bars during 2014, and official censorship remained pervasive, leaving Cuba as the worst performer in the region with a score of 91.

Mexico, already suffering from endemic violence that makes it one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, received its lowest score in over a decade—falling two points to 63—after the passage of a new law that allows the government to track mobile-telephone users and monitor or shut down telecommunications during protests. In addition, a more onerous registration process has made it more difficult for community radio stations to obtain licenses.

In Ecuador, hostile rhetoric from the government combined with pervasive legal harassment of journalists and media outlets led to a two-point decline, to 64. The enforcement of the 2013 Communication Law, whose controversial provisions included the creation of two powerful regulatory bodies, added to an environment marked by self-censorship and intimidation. Having been subject to fines and sanctions and publicly denounced by officials, several major outlets reduced the frequency of their production and distribution, modified their editorial lines, or closed entirely, decreasing media diversity.

The relationship between the government and critical press outlets in Argentina remained tense in 2014. Although journalists reported an opening in which some administration officials gave interviews to critical outlets, the threat of harsh legal penalties persisted. Juan Pablo Suárez, editor of the online daily Última Hora, was charged with “inciting collective violence” and “terrorizing the population” after he refused to hand over footage of a police officer being arrested.

Brazil’s media face enduring threats from violence and impunity as well as judicial censorship. Four journalists were killed in 2014, and several more were attacked while covering protests against inflation, government performance, and World Cup expenditures. Meanwhile, courts continued to issue censorship orders, fines, and jail sentences to critical journalists and bloggers.

Significant gains and declines:

  • Honduras’s score declined from 64 to 68 due to the filing of sedition charges against a reporter covering a political dispute and the passage of a new secrecy law, which is currently suspended. Furthermore, official censorship combined with media owners’ nearly unconditional support for the government, stifling critical journalism and adversely affecting Honduras’s media diversity. Journalists continued to face intimidation and deadly violence in 2014.
  • Peru’s score declined from 44 to 47 due to an increase in death threats and violence against journalists, ongoing impunity for past crimes, and a lack of political will to address the problem. 
  • Venezuela’s score declined from 78 to 81 due to an increase in the number of threats and physical attacks against the local and foreign press, which hampered their ability to cover the news freely. The transparency of media ownership structures was lacking, and state-exacerbated economic problems, including high inflation and difficulties obtaining foreign currency for purchasing newsprint, have had an adverse effect on the financial viability of print media. Some outlets laid off workers and struggled to secure credit to fill financial gaps.

Asia-Pacific: Declines in East and Southeast Asia

The Asia-Pacific region features considerable subregional diversity. The Pacific Islands, Australasia, and parts of East Asia have some of the best-ranked media environments in the world, while conditions in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and other parts of East Asia are significantly worse. Asia includes the world’s worst-rated country, North Korea (97 points), as well as several other highly restrictive media environments, such as China, Laos, and Vietnam. These settings feature extensive state and party control of the press.

Thailand tied with Libya for the greatest net decline (11 points) in 2014 as a result of the May coup d’état. The military junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), suspended the constitution and imposed martial law, removing legal protections for journalists. Multiple radio and television stations were shut down, the media were prohibited from covering opposition members, and journalists frequently faced attacks and arbitrary detention.

China, still home to the world’s most sophisticated censorship apparatus, declined from 84 to 86 points, marking the country’s worst score since the 1990s. During 2014, propaganda authorities tightened control over liberal media outlets and alternative channels of news dissemination. Previously existing space for investigative journalism and politically liberal commentary shrank noticeably, continuing a trend of ideological discipline that began when Xi Jinping assumed the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012. For the first time in several years, professional journalists from established news outlets were subjected to long-term detention and imprisonment alongside freelancers, online activists, and ethnic minority reporters. New regulations intensified ideological requirements for journalist accreditation and restricted reporters’ ability to publish articles in foreign and Hong Kong–based news outlets, leading to the firing of several journalists during the year. A crackdown on social-media platforms that began in 2013 with increased restrictions on the prominent Sina Weibo microblogging service expanded in 2014 to Tencent’s WeChat instant-messaging program, further limiting the ability of ordinary users and journalists to share uncensored information.

Beijing’s influence over Hong Kong was also felt during the year, as foreign and local companies with mainland Chinese business interests felt compelled to pull advertisements from news outlets that were critical of the central government. The website of Apple Daily, a popular tabloid that was sympathetic to pro-democracy protesters, suffered several major cyberattacks in 2014, including one of the largest recorded denial-of-service attacks to date. Press freedom in Taiwan was also negatively affected by the attack, as Apple Daily’s Taiwan edition remained inaccessible to some overseas readers for nearly two months.

In Afghanistan, there was an increase in attacks against media workers as security in the country began to deteriorate following the withdrawal of international combat troops. The media in Pakistan faced greater editorial pressure from the military and partisan groups, exacerbating an already challenging and dangerous environment for journalists and pushing the country’s score to its lowest level since 2007. India, the world’s largest democracy, achieved another peaceful transfer of power through elections in 2014, yet its press freedom score declined to its lowest level in over a decade due to an increase in the use of defamation cases against journalists and a higher level of self-censorship caused by editorial interference from media owners in the lead-up to the elections.

Significant gains and declines:

  • Cambodia’s score declined from 66 to 69 due to the high level of self-censorship by Khmer-language journalists, the lack of access to a diversity of viewpoints in Khmer-language media, and an increase in violence against journalists in 2014.
  • Hong Kong’s score declined from 37 to 41 due to a surge in the number of violent attacks against journalists and other media workers, both during the prodemocracy protests and in retaliation for reporting; impunity for the organizers of such attacks; and new financial burdens on some media as companies felt pressure to pull advertising from outlets that were critical of Beijing.
  • Myanmar’s score declined from 70 to 73, reversing a three-year trend of improvements, as journalists faced an increased threat of arrests, prosecutions, and closures of media outlets. Many journalists were arrested and received prison terms, and foreign journalists encountered harsher visa restrictions.
  • Thailand’s score declined from 64 to 75 due to the suspension of the constitution and the imposition of martial law by the NCPO. The military government shut down privately owned television and radio stations, which were only allowed to reopen after content restrictions were put in place; used regulatory bodies to monitor media and control content; and prohibited interviews with opposition politicians, activists, and dissidents. The junta was also accused of arbitrarily detaining journalists without access to legal counsel, amid allegations of torture. 

Eurasia: Shrinking Space for Dissent

The Eurasia region’s average score remained the worst in the world in 2014, with declines in key countries and the addition of a separate assessment for Crimea driving the figure sharply downward. It is notable that four of the 10 worst press freedom environments in the world—Belarus, Crimea, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan—are found in Eurasia. 

The most dramatic change in the region occurred in Ukraine, which moved from Not Free to Partly Free. The fall of President Viktor Yanukovych’s authoritarian government led to decreases in political pressure on state media and hostility toward independent voices. However, these gains were partly offset by the effects of the conflict in the country’s eastern regions, which created extensive dangers and obstacles for journalists. At least five journalists were killed in Ukraine in 2014, including one who died during the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv.

The Russian government tightened its grip on news and information in an already constricted media environment. Authorities used a mixture of legislative changes, economic pressure, and strident propaganda—especially regarding the conflict in Ukraine—to achieve this end, suppressing independent reporting and deploying state-controlled outlets to attack domestic dissent and foreign adversaries.

Under Russian occupation, Crimea’s once-pluralistic media environment was battered by the closure and blocking of Ukrainian outlets and the imposition of restrictive Russian media regulations. There were also numerous incidents of intimidation and violence, contributing to an exodus of journalists from Crimea and perilous conditions for those who stayed.

In Azerbaijan, the government unleashed a major crackdown on independent media, employing threats, raids, restrictive laws, and prosecutions. Journalists and bloggers faced fabricated charges and arbitrary detention, and at least eight remained in prison at year’s end, making Azerbaijan the worst jailer of journalists in Eurasia. Economic and political pressures, including the freezing of assets and intimidation, led to the closure of multiple organizations that support journalists’ rights, among them the Media Rights Institute and the local offices of the international advocacy group IREX. Authorities also raided and closed the Azerbaijan bureau of RFE/RL, one of the strongest independent outlets available in the country. 

Moldova, which took another step closer to the European Union after signing an Association Agreement in June, remained a country of particular concern in 2014. In addition to problematic regulatory decisions, media ownership is concentrated and opaque, and the year’s parliamentary elections, along with the crisis in Ukraine, fueled more partisan news coverage.

Significant gains and declines:

  • Azerbaijan’s score declined from 84 to 87 due to the government’s heavy-handed attempts to punish independent journalists through arrest, imprisonment, physical intimidation, and verbal harassment. The government also used raids and arbitrary criminal investigations to impede the operations of or close multiple media organizations.
  • Ukraine’s score improved from 63 to 58 and its status improved from Not Free to Partly Free due to a number of positive changes in the media environment after the collapse of the Yanukovych government, despite a rise in violence against journalists associated with the Euromaidan protests and the subsequent conflict in eastern Ukraine. The level of government hostility and legal pressure on the media decreased, as did political influence on state-owned outlets. There were also improvements to the law on access to information and in the autonomy of the broadcasting regulator.

Europe: Fraying at the Edges

Europe boasts a concentration of high-performing countries, including Norway and Sweden, the world’s top-ranked states with overall scores of 10. These countries provide ample space for independent, diverse voices, and journalists rarely face intimidation or physical attacks. However, they and other high-ranking European nations have struggled in recent years to regulate hate speech without damaging freedom of expression.

Although Europe retains the highest level of press freedom in the world, its regional average score declined for a second consecutive year in 2014. Over the past decade, incremental erosion of the legal and economic environments, as well as interference with the ability of journalists to cover the news in person, have given Europe the world’s second-largest net decline since 2004, after Eurasia.

Greece experienced yet another year of political interference and lack of transparency at the new public broadcaster, New Hellenic Radio, Internet, and Television (NERIT). Changes to broadcasting legislation further barred the media market to new entrants, which are already constrained by the government’s refusal to issue new licenses. Also in 2014, DIGEA, a company whose shareholders include major private channels, secured a monopoly on digital broadcast transmissions through a tailored competition.

Among other problems in Hungary, RTL Klub, one of the two biggest private television stations, was disproportionately affected by an advertising tax. However, a proposed “internet tax,” which would have levied a charge against data transferred online, was defeated in October after opponents mounted large-scale demonstrations.

Political and economic pressures also played a role in a score decline for Iceland in 2014. The state’s dominant position in the broadcast market and tighter control of the public broadcaster, Ríkisútvarpið (RÚV), have weakened the independence of the media sector, as has editorial interference from private owners. Defamation remains a criminal offense in Iceland, despite the government’s recent efforts to make the country an international haven for critical voices.

Expansive national security laws remained an issue of concern in the United Kingdom following revelations of wide-ranging surveillance by the Government Communications Headquarters and a raid on the newsroom of theGuardian newspaper in 2013. In France, the far-right National Front party continued to deny access to the investigative outlet Mediapart; the year also featured the removal of journalists from political events, the harassment and intimidation of journalists at protests, and cyberattacks on news websites.

The Turkish media environment continued to deteriorate as the government moved more aggressively to close the space for dissent. In addition to enacting new legislation that expanded both government powers for website blocking and the surveillance capability of the intelligence service, officials detained prominent journalists from the newspaper Zaman and the Samanyolu Broadcasting Group—which were largely critical of the government and reported on high-level corruption—on charges of establishing an armed terrorist organization.

Significant gains and declines:

  • Greece’s score declined from 46 to 51 because of further government and partisan interference in the media, as seen in restrictive legislative changes to the broadcast market, the creation of a monopoly on digital transmissions through a flawed tender, and politically biased news coverage surrounding elections.
  • Iceland’s score declined from 12 to 16 due to political interference with the work of journalists, who face the threat of criminal defamation charges and the possibility of retaliatory dismissal by employers. Partisanship affects the private media, and the state has exerted increasing influence on the media sector through its dominance in the broadcast market and tighter editorial control of the public broadcaster.
  • Serbia’s score declined from 37 to 40 due to increased government harassment of journalists and restrictions on their work, as well as a decrease in the diversity of media after the cancellation of major political talk shows. 
  • Turkey’s score declined from 62 to 65 due to a number of legislative changes and continuing state efforts to influence reporting through intimidation and economic incentives. New laws restricted the freedom of journalists to report on national security and empowered the intelligence service to access a wide range of information without oversight, while amendments to the internet law increased authorities’ power to block online content.

Middle East and North Africa: Tunisia Stands Out Amid Violence, Repression

After historic gains in the Middle East in 2011, only one country has continued to make progress toward fulfilling the promise of the Arab Spring. Tunisia registered the best score of any Arab country in over a decade, although it remained Partly Free. Conversely, Egypt and Libya, two other countries that saw dramatic improvements in 2011, maintained a pattern of backsliding. Egypt’s score of 73 is its worst in 11 years, marking not only the reversal of gains it made following the ouster of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, but also a regression toward the most repressive years of the Mubarak era. Libya’s score also continued to drop as a civil war affected the post-Qadhafi media environment. 

The long-running conflict in Syria exacerbated conditions in that country and contributed indirectly to declines in Iraq, including through the rise of IS. The war also put pressure on Lebanon, whose score reached a five-year low of 55 due to a marked increase in libel cases against journalists in 2014. Penalties included jail time and exorbitant fines, and many publications faced multiple suits from the same aggrieved party. Moreover, rulings from Lebanon’s Court of Publications during the year indicated a reflexive bias against the media and political motives behind many cases. 

While Israel remains the region’s only Free media environment, the score for the West Bank and Gaza Strip declined by two points to 84 as a result of the war in Gaza. Not only were members of the media killed and injured during the conflict between Israel and Hamas militants, but both Israeli and Palestinian authorities restricted journalists’ movement in Gaza and the West Bank.

In the Persian Gulf, Qatar passed a new cybercrime law that included onerous penalties for “false news” and defamation, though there are hopes that a new Open Data Policy will improve transparency and access to government sources. The media in Bahrain continued to suffer from self-censorship and persecution, and citizen journalists who dared to report on ongoing protests through social media increasingly faced government reprisals. The United Arab Emirates remained one of the most repressive media environments in the region, belying its image as a cosmopolitan oasis among conservative authoritarian regimes.

Elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen’s score declined two points to 78 as both government and Houthi rebel forces targeted journalists, and the media faced greater pressure to serve political interests. Saudi Arabia’s autocratic regime bolstered existing media restrictions with the passage of harsh antiterrorism legislation and increased arrests of critics.

Significant gains and declines:

  • Algeria’s score declined from 59 to 61 and its status declined from Partly Free to Not Free due to restrictions imposed on the media during the 2014 presidential election. A January law placed content limitations on privately owned television channels, and government agencies withdrew advertising from media outlets that covered opposition parties. Foreign journalists were denied entry visas, had their visas restricted, or faced obstacles to access on the ground.
  • Egypt’s score declined from 68 to 73 due to arrests of journalists and a number of deeply flawed court cases that resulted in harsh punishments for journalists and media workers. The hostile environment has led to an increase in self-censorship and a drop in media diversity, with many outlets becoming ardent supporters of the regime.
  • Iraq’s score declined from 69 to 72 due to an increase in censorship regarding coverage of IS and Iraqi security forces, including internet blackouts in the summer of 2014. The perilous security environment also made it more difficult and dangerous to report from large parts of the country.
  • Libya’s score declined from 62 to 73 due to the continued deterioration of the security environment, which denied journalists access to many areas. Media workers were vulnerable to attacks, abductions, and assassinations, and they also faced prosecution for defamation and other criminal offenses. Media outlets came under acute pressure to adhere to the views of the dominant militia groups in their area, as the civil war exacerbated political polarization.
  • Tunisia’s score improved from 53 to 48 due to the ratification of the 2014 constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press, as well as incremental decreases in editorial pressure and attacks on journalists. 

Sub-Saharan Africa: Ongoing Cycles of Repression and Recovery

Sub-Saharan Africa was the only region to show improvement in its average score in 2014, registering a modest quarter-point increase. Most countries that earned improvements started from a low baseline, such as Central African Republic and Guinea-Bissau. Meanwhile, press freedom conditions remained dire in Equatorial Guinea and Eritrea, which rank among the Worst of the Worst. Their authoritarian governments continued to use legal pressure, imprisonment, and other forms of harassment to suppress independent reporting. Other poor performers in the region—including Ethiopia (83), Sudan (81), and The Gambia (81)—found new ways to constrain the already-limited space in which journalists can operate. Ethiopian authorities stepped up arrests of independent journalists, including the Zone 9 bloggers, leading more than 30 to flee the country during the year, according to CPJ. 

In Nigeria, little reporting was possible from areas of the northeast controlled by Boko Haram, and the military increased its efforts to punish critical coverage of its operations against the extremist group. In June, soldiers seized pressruns of several newspapers, including the Nation, Daily Trust, and Leadership, from key distribution points in a coordinated nationwide effort. An army spokesperson said the seizures were a “routine security action.” 

Four traditionally strong performers in southern Africa—Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, and South Africa—experienced unusually turbulent years. Increased efforts by governments to limit reporting on sensitive issues, and arrests of and violence against journalists, contributed to declines in their press freedom scores.

In Kenya, security legislation passed in December 2014 contained several vaguely worded clauses curtailing press freedom, including the threat of three years in prison for journalists who fail to obtain police permission before reporting on terrorism investigations or operations, or for coverage “likely to cause public alarm, incitement to violence, or disturb public peace.” However, the law faced an immediate court challenge, and its most onerous provisions were overturned in early 2015.

Significant gains and declines:

  • Botswana’s score declined from 41 to 44 due to the government’s use of the sedition law to charge an editor and journalist following publication of an article about the president. The incident entailed the jailing of the editor for one night; the journalist has subsequently sought asylum in South Africa. The year also featured increased extralegal harassment of journalists by the Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS), and a spate of physical attacks on media practitioners by strikers, government employees, and private citizens.
  • Central African Republic’s score improved from 77 to 72 due to gradual gains for the media environment under the transitional government of Catherine Samba-Panza, including a decrease in arrests, editorial interference, acts of censorship, and self-censorship.
  • Guinea-Bissau’s score improved from 67 to 59, and its status improved from Not Free to Partly Free, due to strengthened legal protections for the media, the reopening of private outlets, and a reduction in censorship and attacks on journalists in the wake of free and fair elections in April 2014.
  • Madagascar’s score improved from 63 to 59, and its status improved from Not Free to Partly Free, due to a more favorable environment for the press after the restoration of democratic rule, including a decline in direct pressure and censorship from the highest levels of government, and a general lack of violence toward journalists in 2014.
  • Somalia’s score improved from 82 to 79 due to the increased ability of private actors to open media outlets and the greater distribution of media, especially radio, throughout the south-central part of the country.
  • South Africa’s score declined from 33 to 37 due to the increased use of the apartheid-era National Key Points Act to prevent journalists from investigating important locations or institutions, particularly when probing corruption involving political figures; the killing of a journalist at a protest in January and the harassment of others in the course of their work; and an increase in extrajudicial attacks, detentions, and harassment directed at the media by the police.
  • South Sudan’s score declined from 62 to 68 due to the government’s near-complete disregard for constitutional and legal protections for freedom of the press in 2014, as well as the lack of such protections in rebel-held areas; a marked increase in restrictions imposed on journalists by the security forces; and heightened censorship, self-censorship, and retaliatory attacks on journalists.
  • Togo’s score improved from 65 to 62 due to a continued opening in the media environment, including an increase in print outlets, leading to a greater diversity of viewpoints.
  • Zimbabwe’s score improved from 73 to 70 due to a positive court ruling on criminal defamation, a reduction in physical attacks on media workers, and eased restrictions on foreign journalists in 2014.

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