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Press Freedom Index 2009

1001

Africa

Journalists prey to violence, political crises and instability

Madagascar and Gabon fall, Horn sinks deeper, Zimbabwe improves


The Horn was again the African region with the most press freedom violations. Eritrea (175th), where no independent media is tolerated and 30 journalists are in prison (as many as in China or Iran but with a much smaller population), was ranked last in the world for the third year running. Somalia (164th), which is steadily being emptied of its journalists, was the world’s deadliest country for the media, with six journalists killed between 1 January and 4 July.

This year confirmed that, in some African countries, democracy rests on solid foundations and respect for freedoms is guaranteed. But in other countries, political crises and instability dealt harsh blows to the work of journalists and news media.

In Madagascar (134th), which plummeted 40 places, the media were caught in a confrontation between ousted president Marc Ravalomanana and the president of the High Transition Authority, Andry Rajoelina. Censorship, violent attacks on media premises, disinformation and a young journalist’s death while covering a demonstration were the reasons for the island’s sharp fall in the index. In Gabon (129th), the media’s work was undermined by the news blackout about President Omar Bongo’s health which the authorities imposed in the run-up to his death and the poisonous climate during the presidential election in August.

Congo (116th) fell 24 places in the index, mainly because of the mystery surrounding opposition journalist Bruno Jacquet Ossébi’s death and the harassment of several foreign reporters during the 12 July presidential election. The situation seemed relatively calm this year in Guinea (100th), but the 28 September bloodshed in Conakry and the open threats against journalists currently being voiced by the military are a source of deep concern.

Some transitions were less damaging for press freedom. Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s election as president in Mauritania (100th) went ahead without any significant problem for the press even if a website editor’s imprisonment hurt the country’s image. In Guinea-Bissau (92nd), the assassinations in quick succession of the armed forces chief of staff and President Joao Bernardo Vieira caused the temporary suspension of some media and prompted some worried journalists to flee the country, but the lasting impact was limited.

The countries with rampant violence continue to languish in the bottom third of the rankings. In Nigeria (135th) and Democratic Republic of Congo (146th), the practice of journalism is punctuated by physical attacks and arbitrary arrests. Two radio journalists were murdered in Bukavu, the capital of DRC’s eastern province of Sud-Kivu.

Rwanda (157th) continued to fall as the authorities reinforced news control in the run-up to the 2010 elections, temporarily suspending local and international news media and sentencing journalists to jail terms. It is now almost on a par with the “African Kuwait,” Equatorial Guinea (158th), where the foreign media’s only local correspondent spent four months in jail as a result of a defamation action.

Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja was in a close-run race with his Gambian counterpart, Yahya Jammeh, for West Africa’s worst ranking. It was taken in the end by Niger (139th), which fell nine places, two below Gambia (137th), which was again the victim of its president’s intolerance towards the media. This year, Jammeh sent six of the country’s most respected journalists to prison and then made insulting and provocative comments about them in public

In Zimbabwe (136th), the press seems to be in the process of freeing itself from the regime’s vice-like grip. The situation was marred by former journalist Jestina Mukoko’s abduction and then imprisonment for many weeks. But hopes have been buoyed by the new government of national unity’s announcement in the summer that the BBC and CNN would be allowed to return and that the independent Daily News would be able to resume publishing.

The same group of countries lead the pack as in 2008. Ghana (27th), Mali (30th), South Africa (33rd), Namibia (35th) and Cape Verde (44th) are all among the world’s top 50. Boosted by yet another democratic election in January 2009, in which opposition candidate John Atta-Mills defeated the ruling party’s would-be successor to President John Kufuor, Ghana took Africa’s top position from Namibia, where a South African journalist spend a night in police custody before being freed on payment of two lots of bail.

Americas

Southern Cone joins North America while Central America sinks


The process of adopting a Shield Law protecting the confidentiality of journalists’ sources at the federal level is far from over in the United States (20th) but the judicial authorities are no longer jailing journalists and violating civil liberties in the name of national security as they were in the Bush era. So the US is back in the press freedom top 20, as is appropriate for a country where the press has traditionally played its role as independent watchdog well.

The other most striking development is the fall of Honduras (128th), which already had a poor ranking and where the 28 June coup d’état took a heavy toll on press freedom. The new de facto government preys on media that do not support it and has managed to impose a news blackout at the international media’s expense.

Elsewhere in Central America, the problem of violent crime is undermining countries such as El Salvador, where gangs known as “maras” were already targeting the press before they murdered documentary filmmaker Christian Poveda (after the period covered by this index). The problem has also taken a disturbing turn for the worse in Guatemala (106th). Tension between the press and President Daniel Ortega’s administration explain Nicaragua’s fall to 76th position.

The other major decline has been in Venezuela (124th), where a journalist was murdered against a backdrop of rampant criminal violence and President Hugo Chávez’s administration kept changing the rules that govern broadcasting with the aim of steadily silencing its critics. The sudden withdrawal of the licences of 34 regional radio and TV stations in August was part of the strategy.

Already badly placed in the 2008 index, Venezuela is now among the region’s worst press freedom offenders, close to Colombia (126th) and Mexico (tied 137th). In both these countries, the security forces are partly, and in no small measure, to blame for the prevailing violence that leads to self-censorship and subjects being placed off-limits. In a state of virtual civil war since the launch of a major federal offensive against drug trafficking in 2006, Mexico has maintained its tragic status as the hemisphere’s most dangerous country for journalists, with 55 killed since 2000 (and nine since January of this year).

Only Cuba (170th), the region’s unchanging dictatorship, where press freedom is non-existent, is ranked lower in the index. The meagre hopes raised by Raúl Castro’s accession to the presidency in February 2008 quickly evaporated. Two more imprisonments, bringing the number of detained journalists to 25, the frequent blocking of websites and arrests of bloggers are all evidence of the lack of any evolution in the situation of human rights and freedoms.

One of Cuba’s Caribbean neighbours, the Dominican Republic (98th), slipped a few more places because of a high level of violence and an increase in abusive lawsuits against news media. An increase in physical attacks on journalists, combined with lawsuits, administrative censorship and a journalist’s imprisonment, were the reasons for Ecuador’s fall to 84th position.

Bolivia (95th) moved in the opposition direction after plummeting last year. The “media war” is not yet completely over but the government gradually resumed a dialogue with a sector of the press that was partly to blame for the previous year’s political crisis, especially in provinces controlled by opposition parties that want autonomy. Long the holder of the record for physical attacks on journalists, Peru (85th) rose in the index despite the government’s recent closure of a radio station.

Traditionally marred by violence and a lack of any kind of security for journalists, Paraguay (54th) and Haiti (tied 57th) have both climbed the rankings. Violence towards the media has receded in both countries and journalists are daring to tackle sensitive subjects with greater frequency. Guyana (tied 39th) has soared, overtaking Surinam (42nd), thanks to less legalistic quibbling on the part of the authorities and an end to a government policy of withholding state advertising from certain media. The government still has a radio monopoly, however.

A tradition of media diversity, an increase in media democracy and in some cases a decrease in abuse of authority and other censorship attempts are the reasons for the very good rankings obtained by Argentina (47th) and Uruguay (29th), which are on a par with many European countries. Uruguay has even overtaken Costa Rica (30th) as the Latin American country with the highest ranking, staying ahead of Chile (tied 39th) and now close behind Jamaica (23rd) and Trinidad and Tobago (28th), where the press continues to be a respected institution.

Brazil (71st), the regional power, finally rid itself in May of a press law it inherited from the military dictatorship, and has benefitted from the government’s efforts to improve access to information. Despite these positive changes, the government has yet to put an end to the persistent violence against the media in the big cities and in the north and northeast. Preventive censorship continues in certain states where the authorities monopolise the local media.

One of the countries where prosecutions led to exorbitant damages awards, Canada (19th) fell a few places but still holds the hemisphere’s highest position.

Asia

Authoritarianism prevents press freedom progress in much of Asia

Fiji falls furthest, but big advance by Maldives


Political power grabs dealt press freedom a great disservice again this year. A military coup caused Fiji (152nd) to fall 73 places. Soldiers moved into Fijian news rooms for several weeks and censored articles before they were published, while foreign journalists were deported. In Thailand, the endless clashes between “yellow shirts” and “red shirts” had a very negative impact on the press’s ability to work. As a result, the kingdom is now 130th.

The authoritarianism of existing governments, for example in Sri Lanka (162nd) and Malaysia (131st), prevented journalists from properly covering sensitive subjects such as corruption or human rights abuses. The Sri Lankan government had a journalist sentenced to 20 years in prison and forced dozens of others to flee the country. In Malaysia, the interior ministry imposed censorship or self-censorship by threatening media with the withdrawal of their licence or threatening journalists with a spell in prison.

War and terrorism wrought havoc and exposed journalists to great danger. Afghanistan (149th) is sapped not only by Taliban violence and death threats, but also by unjustified arrests by the security forces. Despite having dynamic news media, Pakistan (159th) is crippled by murders of journalists and the aggressiveness of both the Taliban and sectors of the military. It shared (with Somalia) the world record for journalists killed during the period under review.

The Asian countries that least respected press freedom were, predictably, North Korea, one of the “infernal trio” at the bottom of the rankings, Burma, which still suffers from prior censorship and imprisonment, and Laos, an unchanging dictatorship where no privately-owned media are permitted.

The media in China (168th) are evolving rapidly along with the rest of the country but it continues to have a very poor ranking because of the frequency of imprisonment, especially in Tibet, Internet censorship and the nepotism of the central and provincial authorities. Similarly in Vietnam (166th), the ruling Communist Party targets journalists, bloggers and press freedom activists over what they write about its concessions to China.

In the good news section, Maldives (51st) climbed 53 places thanks to a successful democratic transition while Bhutan (70th) rose another four places thanks to further efforts in favour of media diversity.

Asia’s few democracies are well placed in the rankings. New Zealand (13th), Australia (16th) and Japan (17th) are all in the top 20. Respect for press freedom and the lack of targeted violence against journalists enable these three countries to be regional leaders.

South Korea (69th) and Taiwan (59th) fell far this year. South Korea plummeted 22 places because of the arrests of several journalists and bloggers and the conservative government’s attempts to control critical media. The new ruling party in Taiwan tried to interfere in state and privately-owned media while violence by certain activists further undermined press freedom.

Two Asian countries were included in the index for the first time: Papua New Guinea (56th), which obtained a very respectable ranking for a developing country, and the Sultanate of Brunei (155th), which came in the bottom third because of the absence of an independent press.

Europe & ex-USSR

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Europe no longer so exemplary, Russian tragedy deepens


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.

Middle East & North Africa

Region performs poorly, Israel nose-dives


Israel cast down by Operation Cast Lead
This is the first time that Israel (internal) is not at the head of the Middle Eastern countries in the press freedom index. By falling 47 places to 93rd position, it is now behind Kuwait (60th), United Arab Emirates (86th) and Lebanon (61st). Arrests of journalists (and not only foreign ones), their conviction and in some cases their deportation are the reasons for Israel’s nose-dive. Israel’s media are outspoken and investigate sensitive subjects thoroughly, but military censorship is still in force.

Like the United States, Israel has a separate ranking for activities outside its own territory. Israel (extraterritorial) also fell, to 150th position, as a result of its offensive against the Gaza Strip, Operation Cast Lead, in which the Israeli military bombarded buildings housing Palestinian news media. Foreign and Israeli media were denied access to the Gaza Strip throughout the offensive.

Iran at gates of infernal trio
Iran (172nd) now stands at the threshold of the infernal trio of countries at the very bottom of the index after a major deterioration in its press freedom situation marked by blogger Omidreza Mirsayafi’s death in Evin prison, Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi’s arrest and the crackdown in the wake of President Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad’s disputed reelection in June. Many journalists were arrested and a Stalinist-style show trial began in Tehran in which the most basic rights of the defendants are still being flouted.

Yemen (167th) continued to sink towards the bottom of the rankings. Journalists pay for the government’s scorched-earth policies towards any form of separatism, not only in the north against the Zaydi rebels but also in the south. The Saleh government has drastically curtailed freedom of expression since May, imposing a news blackout on its military operations.

A similar downward trend continued in Syria (165th). Although there was less recourse to physical violence against journalists, the situation was very worrying, with repression steadily tightening its grip and closing off the remaining areas of freedom available to the independent and opposition media.

Although Libya (156th) rose a few positions in the rankings, its already limited tolerance of free expression suffered setbacks this year. The import of Arab and other foreign publications was permitted, but two privately-owned publications created in 2007 by Al-Ghad, a company owned by Muammar Gaddafi’s son Seif Al-Islam, were nationalised and the Al-Libya TV station’s bureaux were closed.

The situation of journalists in Iraq (145th) has evolved inasmuch as the problem is no longer the same. Instead of targeted threats from militias or terrorist groups, Iraqi journalists now have to cope with hostility from officials and politicians who deny the media access to certain areas. Abusive prosecutions and defamation actions against newspapers that expose corruption are now common. Even supposedly pro-government media are not spared.

The run-up to major elections was marked by greater hostility towards journalists in the Maghreb. There was an increase in prosecutions of news media in Algeria (141st) while President Ben Ali’s regime stepped up its suppression of all independent journalism in Tunisia (154th).

Morocco (127th) continued the fall that it began three years ago. The royal palace has become more vigilant about the “red lines” that the press must not cross but is changing the methods used to ensure respect. As with other regimes, financial reprisals are becoming the preferred weapon for use against journalists who go too far. Exorbitant damages awards now pose more of a threat to the Moroccan media that prison sentences.

There was unfortunately little evolution in the Gulf states, where there is an almost complete absence of independent media. The ruling families have a monopoly of radio and TV and the printing and distribution of newspapers, and self-censorship is systematic.

Obama effect in US, while Europe continues to recede
Israel in free fall, Iran at gates of infernal trio

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“Press freedom must be defended everywhere in the world with the same energy and the same insistence,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said today as his organisation issued its eighth annual world press freedom index.

“It is disturbing to see European democracies such as France, Italy and Slovakia fall steadily in the rankings year after year,” Julliard said. “Europe should be setting an example as regards civil liberties. How can you condemn human rights violations abroad if you do not behave irreproachably at home? The Obama effect, which has enabled the United States to recover 16 places in the index, is not enough to reassure us.”

Reporters Without Borders compiles the index every year on the basis of questionnaires that are completed by hundreds of journalists and media experts around the world. This year’s index reflects press freedom violations that took place between 1 September 2008 and 31 August 2009.

Europea no longer an example?

Europe long set an example in press freedom but several European nations have fallen significantly in this year’s index. Even if the first 13 places are still held by European countries, others such as France (43rd), Slovakia (44th) and Italy (49th) continue their descent, falling eight, 37 and five places respectively. In so doing, they have given way to young democracies in Africa (Mali, South Africa and Ghana) and the western hemisphere (Uruguay and Trinidad and Tobago).

Journalists are still physically threatened in Italy and Spain (44th), but also in the Balkans, especially Croatia (78th), where the owner and marketing director of the weekly Nacional were killed by a bomb on 23 October 2008.

But the main threat, a more serious one in the long term, comes from new legislation. Many laws adopted since September 2008 have compromised the work of journalists. One adopted by Slovakia (44th) has introduced the dangerous concept of an automatic right of response and has given the culture minister considerable influence over publications.

Israel: operation media crackdown

Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s military offensive against the Gaza Strip, had an impact on the press. As regards its internal situation, Israel sank 47 places in the index to 93rd position. This nose-dive means it has lost its place at the head of the Middle Eastern countries, falling behind Kuwait (60th), United Arab Emirates (86th) and Lebanon (61st).

Israel has begun to use the same methods internally as it does outside its own territory. Reporters Without Borders registered five arrests of journalists, some of them completely illegal, and three cases of imprisonment. The military censorship applied to all the media is also posing a threat to journalists.

As regards its extraterritorial actions, Israel was ranked 150th. The toll of the war was very heavy. Around 20 journalists in the Gaza Strip were injured by the Israeli military forces and three were killed while covering the offensive.

Iran at gates of infernal trio

Journalists have suffered more than ever this year in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran. The president’s disputed reelection plunged the country into a major crisis and fostered regime paranoia about journalists and bloggers.

Automatic prior censorship, state surveillance of journalists, mistreatment, journalists forced to flee the country, illegal arrests and imprisonment – such is the state of press freedom this year in Iran.

Already at the lower end of the rankings in previous years, Iran has now reached the gates of the infernal trio at the very bottom – Turkmenistan (173rd), North Korea (174th) and Eritrea (175th) – where the media are so suppressed they are non-existent.

Obama effect brings US back into top 20

The United States has climbed 16 places in the rankings, from 36th to 20th, in just one year. Barack Obama’s election as president and the fact that he has a less hawkish approach than his predecessor have had a lot to do with this.

But this sharp rise concerns only the state of press freedom within the United States. President Obama may have been awarded the Nobel peace prize, but his country is still fighting two wars. Despite a slight improvement, the attitude of the United States towards the media in Iraq and Afghanistan is worrying. Several journalists were injured or arrested by the US military. One, Ibrahim Jassam, is still being held in Iraq.

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