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Reporters Without Borders is publishing for the first time a worldwide index of countries according to their respect for press freedom. It also shows that such freedom is under threat everywhere, with the 20 bottom-ranked countries drawn from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The situation in especially bad in Asia, which contains the five worst offenders - North Korea, China, Burma, Turkmenistan and Bhutan.
The top end of the list shows that rich countries have no monopoly of press freedom. Costa Rica and Benin are examples of how growth of a free press does not just depend on a country’s material prosperity.
The index was drawn up by asking journalists, researchers and legal experts to answer 50 questions about the whole range of press freedom violations (such as murders or arrests of journalists, censorship, pressure, state monopolies in various fields, punishment of press law offences and regulation of the media). The final list includes 139 countries. The others were not included in the absence of reliable information.
In the worst-ranked countries, press freedom is a dead letter and independent newspapers do not exist. The only voice heard is of media tightly controlled or monitored by the government. The very few independent journalists are constantly harassed, imprisoned or forced into exile by the authorities. The foreign media is banned or allowed in very small doses, always closely monitored.
Right at the top of the list four countries share first place - Finland, Iceland, Norway and the Netherlands. These northern European states scrupulously respect press freedom in their own countries but also speak up for it elsewhere, for example recently in Eritrea and Zimbabwe. The highest-scoring country outside Europe is Canada, which comes fifth.
Some countries with democratically-elected governments are way down in the index - such as Colombia (114th) and Bangladesh (118th). In these countries, armed rebel movements, militias or political parties constantly endanger the lives of journalists. The state fails to do all it could to protect them and fight the immunity very often enjoyed by those responsible for such violence.
The poor ranking of the United States (17th) is mainly because of the number of journalists arrested or imprisoned there. Arrests are often because they refuse to reveal their sources in court. Also, since the 11 September attacks, several journalists have been arrested for crossing security lines at some official buildings.
The highest-ranked country of the South is Costa Rica, in 15th position. This Central American nation is traditionally the continent’s best performer in terms of press freedom. In February 2002, it ceased to be one of the 17 Latin American states that still give prison sentences to those found guilty of "insulting" public officials. The murder in July 2001 year of journalist Parmenio Medina was an exception in the history of the Costa Rican media.
Cuba, the last dictatorship in Latin America, came 134th and is the only country in the region where there is no diversity of news and journalists are routinely imprisoned. In Haiti (106th), journalists are targeted by informal militias whose actions are covered by the government.
The 15 member-countries of the European Union (EU) all score well except for Italy (40th), where news diversity is under serious threat. Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is turning up the pressure on the state-owned television stations, has named his henchmen to help run them and continues to combine his job as head of government with being boss of a privately-owned media group. The imprisonment of journalist Stefano Surace, convicted of press offences from 30 years ago, as well as the monitoring of journalists, searches, unjustified legal summonses and confiscation of equipment, are all responsible for the country’s low ranking.
France, in 11th place overall, comes only 8th among EU countries because of several disturbing measures endangering the protection of journalists’ sources and because of police interrogation of a number of journalists in recent months.
Among those states hoping to join the EU, Turkey (99th) is very poorly placed. Despite the reform efforts of its government, aimed at easing entry into the EU, many journalists are still being given prison sentences and the media is regularly censored. Press freedom is especially under siege in the southeastern part of the country.
Elsewhere in Europe, such as Belarus (124th), Russia (121st) and the former Soviet republics, it is still difficult to work as a journalist and several have been murdered or imprisoned. Grigory Pasko, jailed since December 2001 in the Vladivostok region of Russia, was given a four-year sentence for publishing pictures of the Russian Navy pouring liquid radioactive waste into the Sea of Japan.
No Arab country is among the top 50. Lebanon only makes 56th place and the press freedom situation in the region is not encouraging. In Iraq (130th) and Syria (126th), the state uses every means to control the media and stifle any dissenting voice. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein especially has set his country’s media the sole task of relaying his regime’s propaganda. In Libya (129th) and Tunisia (128th), no criticism of Col Muammar Kadhafi or President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali is tolerated.
The political weakening of the Palestinian Authority (82nd) means it has made few assaults on press freedom. However, Islamic fundamentalist opposition media have been closed, several attempts made to intimidate and attack local and foreign journalists and many subjects remain taboo. The aim is to convey a united image of the Palestinian people and to conceal aspects such a demonstrations of support for attacks on Israel.
The attitude of Israel (92nd) towards press freedom is ambivalent. Despite strong pressure on state-owned TV and radio, the government respects the local media’s freedom of expression. However, in the West Bank and Gaza, Reporters Without Borders has recorded a large number of violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which guarantees press freedom and which Israel has signed. Since the start of the Israeli army’s incursions into Palestinian towns and cities in March 2002, very many journalists have been roughed up, threatened, arrested, banned from moving around, targeted by gunfire, wounded or injured, had their press cards withdrawn or been deported.
Eritrea (132nd) and Zimbabwe (122nd) are the most repressive countries of sub-Saharan Africa. The entire privately-owned press in Eritrea was banned by the government in September 2001 and 18 journalists are currently imprisoned there. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is notable for his especially harsh attitude to the foreign and opposition media.
At the other end of the spectrum, Benin is in 21st place despite being classified by the UN Development Programme as one of the world 15 poorest countries. Other African states, such as South Africa (26th), Mali (43rd), Namibia (31st) and Senegal (47th), have genuine press freedom too.