For the first time since 2002, the press freedom index’s top 20 is not quite so European. Only 15 of the 20 leading countries are from the Old Continent, compared with 18 in 2008. Eleven of these 15 countries are European Union members. They include the top three, Denmark, Finland and Ireland. Another EU member, Bulgaria, has been falling steadily since it joined in 2007 and is now 68th (against 59th in 2008). This is the lowest ranking of any member of the union.
The biggest one-year fall of any EU member was Slovakia’s. It sank 37 places to be 44th. This was mainly the result of government meddling in media activities and the adoption in 2008 of a law imposing an automatic right of response in the press. Two candidates for EU membership also experienced suffered dramatic falls. They were Croatia (78th), which fell 33 places, and Turkey (122nd), which fell 20 places.
The impact of organised crime and the targeting of journalists account for the falls suffered by both Bulgaria and Italy (49th), which got the worst ranking of the EU’s six original founders. Il Cavaliere’s harassment of the media, increased meddling, mafia violence against journalists who expose its activity and a bill that that would drastically curb the media’s ability to publish official phone tap transcripts explain why Italy fell for the second year running. France (43rd) did not fare much better, falling eight points because of judicial investigations and arrests of journalists and raids on news media, and also because of meddling in the media by politicians, including President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The region’s most repressive countries, Uzbekistan (160th) and Turkmenistan (173rd), have not evolved significantly and their journalists are still subject to censorship, arbitrary treatment and violence. The dialogues they have begun with the European Union and other partners do not seem to have borne fruit in terms of human rights and there is every reason to fear that the international community will sacrifice free expression in the race for energy security. Both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are rich in natural resources including hydrocarbons.
Russia (153rd) tumbled 12 places, below Belarus for the first time. The reasons for this fall, three years after Anna Politkovskaya’s murder, include continuing murders of journalists and human rights activists who help to inform the population, and physical attacks on local media representatives. They also include the return with increasing force of censorship and reporting taboos and the complete failure to punish those responsible for the murders.
Indicators point to a deterioration in the press freedom situation in almost all of the former Soviet Republics except Georgia (81st) and, to a lesser extent, Belarus (151st), whose government has initiated a cautious and so far limited improvement in its relations with the press as part of a renewed dialogue with the EU. It is hard at this stage to predict whether this ripple on the surface will swell or fade away.
Georgia was able to leap 39 positions because it did not fight a war during the period covered even if political tension continued to have an impact on the news media. Its South Caucasian neighbour, Armenia (111th), fell sharply because of several cases of physical violence against journalists and political tension that continued to affect the media and society.
There was no change in neighbouring Azerbaijan, where the situation continued to be really worrying. This was clear from the Reporters Without Borders monitoring of press coverage during the presidential election campaign in November 2008 and from the National Television and Radio Council’s decision to ban foreign radio stations (BBC, Radio Free Europe and Voice of America) from broadcasting on local frequencies.
The decline in press freedom continued in Central Asia, especially in Kyrgyzstan (125th) and its enormous, gas-rich neighbour Kazakhstan (142nd), which both fell more than 15 places. Kazakhstan distinguished itself by the number of libel suits brought against independent and opposition newspapers and its recourse to the time-honoured practice of awarding such colossal sums in damages that the publication is forced to close.
Kazakhstan’s worst-ever ranking since the index began in 2002 was also due to intimidation and violence against journalists and the prolongation of a law that subjects websites to the same restrictions as the traditional media. In Kyrgyzstan, concerns were fuelled by an increase in physical attacks and intimidation of journalists that led some to flee the country, one-sided coverage of an election campaign, and pressure on foreign radio stations, which need a prior accord with the authorities to be able to broadcast locally.
Turkey’s big fall was due to a surge in cases of censorship, especially censorship of media that represent minorities (above all the Kurds), and efforts by members of government bodies, the armed forces and judicial system to maintain their control over coverage of matters of general interest.
In Croatia, which hopes to join the EU very soon, certain aspects of Serbo-Croatian relations are a source of tension and are off-limits for the media. Journalists who violate the taboo are often the targets of violence. Organised crime groups have also been responsible for physical attacks on journalists.
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