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The United States rose twelve places to 36th position. The release of Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Haj after six years in the Guantanamo Bay military base contributed to this improvement. Although the absence of a federal “shield law” means the confidentiality of sources is still threatened by federal courts, the number of journalists being subpoenaed or forced to reveal their sources has declined in recent months and none has been sent to prison. But the August 2007 murder of Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey in Oakland, California, is still unpunished a year later. The way the investigation into his murder has become enmeshed in local conflicts of interest and the lack of federal judicial intervention also help to explain why the United States did not get a higher ranking. Account was also taken of the many arrests of journalists during the Democratic and Republican conventions.
The index’s most spectacular fall is Bolivia (115th), which plummeted 47 places. Its institutional and political crisis has exacerbated the polarisation between state and privately-owned media and exposed journalists to violence because of their presumed links with the government or opposition. One state media employee was killed. Unlike Hugo Chávez’s government in Venezuela (113rd), Evo Morales’ government has tried to defuse the media war by repeatedly offering to talk with the opposition.
Peru (108th) still leads the way as regards the number of physical attacks on journalists, but the level of violence continues to be greater in Colombia (126th) and Mexico (140th), where armed groups and drug traffickers threaten the media’s survival in some areas. While the number of journalists killed in these two countries has fallen, more are fleeing into exile. There have been signs of opening by Raúl Castro’s government in Cuba (last in the Americas at 169th), but they have not changed the human rights situation. Twenty-three dissident journalists are still in prison and press freedom is still non-existent.
Jamaica (21st) and Trinidad and Tobago (27th) are joined in the top 30 this year by Surinam (26th), which has been included in the index for the first time, as has Guyana (88th). The latter’s low position is due to tension between President Bharrat Jagdeo’s government and the press, and to the state’s monopoly of radio broadcasting. Haiti (73rd) continues to rise slowly and Argentina (68th) has also improved, but Brazil (82nd) has barely shifted because of several serious cases of violence against the press.
There is little change at the head of the index this year. Aside from Canada and New Zealand, the top 20 countries are all European. None of the European Union’s 27 members is outside the top 60. Europe’s bad boy, Bulgaria (59th), trailed behind the others because of its failure to deal firmly with corruption and violence that is both gangland and political in origin. Italy (44th) and Spain (36th) also received mediocre rankings due, in the former, to a poor overall climate and to mafia threats and violence, and in the latter, to the fear imposed by the Basque armed separatist group ETA.
France (35th) has for the past two years held the European record for police and court interventions linked to the confidentiality of journalists’ sources, with five searches, two preliminary indictments and four summonses. The arrest of Guillaume Dasquié of Geopolitique.com by the Directorate for Territorial Surveillance (DST), an intelligence agency, and the arrest of an Auto Plus reporter, accompanied by raids on his home and office, show that the confidentiality of sources is not always adequately protected in the “land of human rights.”
The most significant development in the former Soviet periphery is the deterioration in the Caucasus, where two of its three independent countries - Armenia (102nd) and Georgia (120th) - had major problems and introduced states of emergency. Several journalists fell victim to the sudden outbreak of war in Georgia.
The countries of Central Asia continue to lag far behind, with Uzbekistan (162nd) and Turkmenistan (171st) coming in the last 20 along with Belarus (154th). The situation in Russia (141st), where the press continues to be subject to violence and harassment, has been changed little by Dimitri Medvedev’s election as president.
Asia still has the biggest representation in the 10 countries at the bottom of the ranking. Most of them are dictatorships, but they also for the first time include Sri Lanka (165th), which has an elected government and where the press faces violence that is only too often organised by the state.
At the other end of the spectrum, New Zealand (7th), Australia (28th) and Japan (29th) - countries where democracy is deeply anchored - are in the top 30. New Zealand is one of the only two non-European countries in the top 20, the other being Canada (13th).
Some young democracies have advanced significantly in the past year. Maldives (104th) now has a flourishing independent press. The same goes for Bhutan (74th), where the first privately-owned news media are gradually establishing a distinct identity for themselves.
Afghanistan (156th), on the other hand, has fallen in the ranking because of violence, not only by the Taliban and the warlords’ henchmen but also by government representatives. Burma’s position was already bad and now is worse (170th). The crackdown launched after the September 2007 protests never ended: dozens of journalists have been arrested or threatened, while the military censorship is relentless. In Southeast Asia, Cambodia (126th) got a bad score as a result of a journalist’s murder that was probably instigated by a police officer, and the fact that control of the media was stepped up for the parliamentary elections. Vietnam (168th) fell six places as a result of a crackdown on the liberal media for being too probing in its reporting on corruption.
Major political changes took place in Pakistan (152nd) and Nepal (138th) but their effects on press freedom have not yet been felt. Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s departure as Pakistan’s president should benefit the press but the war with the Taliban is an even more serious problem for journalists.
The low ranking accorded to the United States outside of its own territory (119th) is due in part to the US military’s abuses in Afghanistan where a fixer for a Canadian TV network was arbitrarily detained for several months without any form of trial.
China (167th) continues to have a low ranking despite the efforts of many news media to elude the straightjacket of censorship and police controls. The number of arrests and cases of news surveillance and control by the political police and Propaganda Department is still very high and prevents the new Asian power from achieving any significant improvement.
The same six Middle East champions of repression that are near the bottom of the world press freedom index every year have confirmed their status this year again. Free expression continues to be no more than a dream in Iraq (158th), Syria (159th), Libya (160th), Saudi Arabia (161st), the Palestinian Territories (163rd) and Iran (166th). Journalists are subjected to relentless censorship and in some cases incredible violence in these countries. The Palestinian Territories have never before fallen so far in a year. The power struggle between the main factions has taken a disastrous toll on press freedom. The political split between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank has been accompanied by a division of the media. The Israeli military’s responsibility for the death of a Palestinian cameraman employed by Reuters in April and the impunity granted to the soldier who fired the fatal shell account for Israel’s fall (149th outside its own territory) in the ranking.
In the Maghreb, Morocco (122nd) continues the fall it began two years ago. The decline in relations between government and press increased significantly with the jailing of journalist Mostapha Hurmatallah. A series of prosecutions of journalists and Internet users has shown that press freedom in Morocco stops at the doors of the royal palace.
Lebanon (66th) has risen 30 places as no journalist was on the list of victims of this year’s bombings. The Hezbollah-orchestrated offensive against certain media affiliated to the anti-Syrian opposition left no victims and trigged a wave of indignation in Lebanese society.
Some African leaders have understood the advantages their countries could derive from press freedom. Others have behaved like despots again this year. The continent’s best-placed countries continue by and large to be the same, with Namibia (23rd), Mali (31st), Cape Verde (36th) and Mauritius (47th) coming in the top 50. Some countries that were sorely tried by years of war or dictatorship are emerging from the depths to which they were plunged by violence. They include Liberia (51st), where some police officers still behave with deplorable brutality, and Togo (53rd), which is managing to adhere to acceptable democratic standards.
In democracies such as Botswana (66th) and Benin (70th), the climate between the government and the press often deteriorates, preventing these countries from attaining the positions they would otherwise deserve, given their overall political situation.
Senegal (86th) has fallen again in the ranking because of the government’s stubborn refusal to amend the press law and the often outrageous behaviour of some of Dakar’s newspapers. Senegalese journalists were imprisoned again this year. The bad surprise came from Mauritania (105th), where legislative reforms were clearly inadequate and the political culture continues to be marked by former President Ould Taya’s police-state practices.
There is no point in having a diverse and often insolent press unless you tolerate it without resorting to the security forces or an easily influenced legal system. In Central African Republic (85th), Burundi (94th) and Guinea (99th), for example, the least political unrest can send journalists to prison or at least the police station.
This year’s black spots in Africa were Kenya (97th), which fell 19 places as a result of post-electoral violence, and above all Niger (130th), which fell 41 places after a very trying year for journalists in Niamey and elsewhere. Reporting on the Tuareg uprising in the north of the country has become an absolute taboo for the government, especially in the run-up to the 2009 presidential election.
The African countries near the bottom of the ranking are also the same ones as usual. They include Gambia (137th), Democratic Republic of Congo (148th) and Zimbabwe (151st), where independent journalism requires courage, determination and an ability to put up with violence and injustice.
Finally, the gigantic posters to the glory of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema throughout “Africa’s Kuwait” say it all about the media situation in Equatorial Guinea (156th). But the continent’s most abused country is yet again Eritrea (173rd), last in the ranking for the second year running. President Issaias Afeworki clings to his deliberate choice of cruelty to the many journalists held incommunicado since 2001, and despotism as his method of governing a country whose citizens continue to flee into exile.
It is not economic prosperity but peace that guarantees press freedom. That is the main lesson to be drawn from the world press freedom index that Reporters Without Borders compiles every year and from the 2008 edition, released today. Another conclusion from the index - in which the bottom three rungs are again occupied by the “infernal trio” of Turkmenistan (171st), North Korea (172nd) and Eritrea (173rd) - is that the international community’s conduct towards authoritarian regimes such as Cuba (169th) and China (167th) is not effective enough to yield results.
“The post-9/11 world is now clearly drawn,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Destabilised and on the defensive, the leading democracies are gradually eroding the space for freedoms. The economically most powerful dictatorships arrogantly proclaim their authoritarianism, exploiting the international community’s divisions and the ravages of the wars carried out in the name of the fight against terrorism. Religious and political taboos are taking greater hold by the year in countries that used to be advancing down the road of freedom.”
“The world’s closed countries, governed by the worst press freedom predators, continue to muzzle their media at will, with complete impunity, while organisations such as the UN lose all authority over their members,” Reporters Without Borders added. “In contrast with this generalised decline, there are economically weak countries that nonetheless guarantee their population the right to disagree with the government and to say so publicly.”
War and peace
Two aspects stand out in the index, which covers the 12 months to 1 September 2008. One is Europe’s preeminence. Aside from New Zealand and Canada, the first 20 positions are held by European countries. The other is the very respectable ranking achieved by certain Central American and Caribbean countries. Jamaica and Costa Rica are in 21st and 22nd positions, rubbing shoulders with Hungary (23rd). Just a few position below them are Surinam (26th) and Trinidad and Tobago (27th). These small Caribbean countries have done much better than France (35th), which has fallen again this year, this time by four places, and Spain (36th) and Italy (44th), countries held back again by political or mafia violence. Namibia (23rd), a large and now peaceful southern African country that came first in Africa, ahead of Ghana (31st), was just one point short of joining the top 20.
The economic disparities among the top 20 are immense. Iceland’s per capita GDP is 10 times Jamaica’s. What they have in common is a parliamentary democratic system, and not being involved in any war. This is not the case with the United States (36th domestically and 119th outside its own territory) and Israel (46th domestically and 149th outside its own territory), whose armed forces killed a Palestinian journalist for the first time since 2003. A resumption of fighting also affected Georgia (120th) and Niger, which fell sharply from 95th in 2007 to 130th this year. Although they have democratic political systems, these countries are embroiled in low or high intensity conflicts and their journalists, exposed to the dangers of combat or repression, are easy prey. The recent provisional release of Moussa Kaka, the Niger correspondent of RFI and Reporters Without Borders, after 384 days in prison in Niamey and cameraman Sami al-Haj’s release after six years in the hell of Guantanamo serve as reminders that wars sweep away not only lives but also, and above all, freedom.
Under fire from belligerents or intrusive governments
Countries that have become embroiled in very violent conflicts after failing to resolve serious political problems, such as Iraq (158th), Pakistan (152nd), Afghanistan (156th) and Somalia (153rd), continue to be highly dangerous “black zones” for the press, places where journalists are targets for murder, kidnapping, arbitrary arrest or death threats every day. They may come under fire from the parties at war. They may be accused of taking sides. Any excuse will do to get rid of “trouble-makers” and “spies.” Such is the case in the Palestinian Territories (163rd), especially the Gaza Strip, where the situation got much worse after Hamas seized power. At the same time, in Sri Lanka (165th), where there is an elected government, the press has to face violence that is only too often organised by the state.
Bringing up the rear are the dictatorships - some disguised, some not - where dissidents and pro-reform journalists manage to open cracks in the walls that enclose them. The year of the Olympics in the new Asian power, China (167th), was the year that Hu Jia and many other dissidents and journalists were jailed. But it also provided opportunities to those liberal media that are trying gradually to free themselves of the country’s still pervasive police control. Being a journalist in Beijing or Shanghai - or in Iran (166th), Uzbekistan (162nd) and Zimbabwe (151st) - is a high risk exercise involving endless frustration and constant police and judicial harassment. In Burma (170th), run by a xenophobic and inflexible junta, journalists and intellectuals, even foreign ones, have for years been viewed as enemies by the regime, and they pay the price.
In Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s Tunisia (143rd), Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya (160rd), Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus (154th), Bashar el-Assad’s Syria (159e) and Teodoro Obiang Nguema’s Equatorial Guinea (156th), the leader’s ubiquitous portrait on the streets and front pages of the newspapers is enough to dispel any doubt about the lack of press freedom. Other dictatorships do without a personality cult but are just as suffocating. Nothing is possible in Laos (164th) or Saudi Arabia (161st) if it does not accord with government policy.
Finally, North Korea and Turkmenistan are unchanging hells in which the population is cut off from the world and is subjected to propaganda worthy of a bygone age. And in Eritrea (173rd), which has come last for the second year running, President Issaias Afeworki and his small clan of paranoid nationalists continue to run Africa’s youngest country like a vast open prison.
The international community, including the European Union, endlessly repeats that the only solution continues to be “dialogue.” But dialogue has clearly had little success and even the most authoritarian governments are still able to ignore remonstrations without risking any repercussions other than the inconsequential displeasure of the occasional diplomat.
Dangers of corruption and political hatred
The other disease that eats away at democracies and makes them lose ground in the ranking is corruption. The bad example of Bulgaria (59th), still last in Europe, serves as a reminder that universal suffrage, media pluralism and some constitutional guarantees are not enough to ensure effective press freedom. The climate must also favour the flow of information and expression of opinions. The social and political tensions in Peru (108th) and Kenya (97th), the media politicisation in Madagascar (94th) and Bolivia (115th) and the violence against investigative journalists in Brazil (82nd) are all examples of the kinds of poison that blight emerging democracies. And the existence of people who break the law to get rich and who punish inquisitive journalists with impunity is a scourge that keeps several “great countries” - such as Nigeria (131st), Mexico (140th) and India (118th) - in shameful positions.
Certain would-be “great countries” deliberately behave in a manner that is brutal, unfair or just disturbing. The examples include Venezuela (113th), where President Hugo Chávez’s personality and decrees are often crushing, and the Putin-Medvedev duo’s Russia (141st), where state and opposition media are strictly controlled and journalists such as Anna Politkovskaya are killed each year by “unidentified” gunmen who often turn out to have close links with the Kremlin’s security services.
Resisting the taboos
The ranking’s “soft underbelly” also includes countries that waver between repression and liberalisation, where the taboos are still inviolable and the press laws hark back to another era. In Gabon (110th), Cameroon (129th), Morocco (122nd), Oman (123rd), Cambodia (126th), Jordan (128th) and Malaysia (132nd), for example, it is strictly forbidden to report anything that reflects badly on the president or monarch, or their family and close associates. Journalists are routinely sent to prison in Senegal (86th) and Algeria (121st) under repressive legislation that violates the democratic standards advocated by the UN.
Online repression also exposes these tenacious taboos. In Egypt (146th), demonstrations launched online shook the capital and alarmed the government, which now regards every Internet user as a potential danger. The use of Internet filtering is growing by the year and the most repressive governments do not hesitate to jail bloggers. While China still leads the “Internet black hole” ranking worldwide, deploying considerable technical resources to control Internet users, Syria (159th) is the Middle-East champion in cyber-repression. Internet surveillance is so thorough there that even the least criticism posted online is sooner or later followed by arrest.
Only a few countries have risen significantly in the ranking. Lebanon (66th), for example, has climbed back to a more logical position after the end of the bomb attacks on influential journalists of recent years. Haiti (73rd) continues its slow rise, as do Argentina (68th) and Maldives (104th). But the democratic transition has halted in Mauritania (105th), preventing it from continuing its rise, while the slender gains of the past few years in Chad (133rd) and Sudan (135th) were swept away by the overnight introduction of censorship.