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World: Press Freedom Day Marks General Decline In Access To Independent Media

  • Don Hill --> UNESCO is marking World Press Freedom Day with a two-day conference beginning 2 May in Belgrade. The theme is "Media in Conflict and Countries in Transition." There will be speeches by international figures, an award to an imprisoned journalist, and workshops on advancing the cause of press freedom. The conference follows immediately after the publication of a study by the New York-based NGO Freedom House that concludes that press freedom is on the decline around the world -- from Italy to Afghanistan.

Prague, 30 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In 1991, the United Nations established 3 May as World Press Freedom Day.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recommended the action and each year organizes activities to observe the occasion. Top UNESCO officials are gathering in Belgrade for a two-day international conference starting on 2 May whose theme is "Media in Conflict and Countries in Transition."

In a message prepared for the occasion, UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura said, "On World Press Freedom Day, let us celebrate the importance of media freedom for all societies, but especially for those whose journey toward recovery, stability, and peace is ongoing and beset by uncertainty."

UNESCO's Mogens Schmidt said press-freedom advocates labor not so much for a perfect world of press freedom as for an improved one.
The two-day program will include talks and workshops on aspects of press freedom, a world press photo exhibition, and case studies on threats to journalists. There will also be a ceremony to award the World Press Freedom Prize for 2004 to Cuban journalist Raul Rivero Castaneda. Castaneda was sentenced last year to 20 years in prison for allegedly undermining Cuba's "independence and integrity." He wrote articles critical of Cuban leader Fidel Castro for U.S. and French publications.

The UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, including Article 19, which guarantees the free flow of information. Since then, the topic of press freedom has received considerable international attention. The question is whether that attention has had a positive effect.

U.S.-based Freedom House just issued its annual assessment of the state of press freedom throughout the world. The report's senior researcher and managing editor is Karin Karlekar. In a telephone interview from New York, she told RFE/RL that global press freedom is deteriorating.

"This year, we found that press freedom globally had declined to a new low over the past two years. And this year was the second year of this trend that we saw. Overall, in terms of the global numbers, it looks like 5 percent less of the [world's] population has access to free media, while [the number of] people living in media environments that we classify as 'not free' has increased by 5 percent," Karlekar said.

One startling result of the study was the demotion of Italy from "free" to only "partly free," due mainly to new regulations and the concentration of media ownership under the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. “In fact, this is the first time since 1988 that a Western European country -- other than Turkey, which we also classify in Western Europe -- has been ranked as having 'partly free' media,” Karlekar said. “So that was a huge story this year."

Most of the countries of the world remained minimally changed in the free press ratings. With the exception of Italy, those of Western Europe remained in the "free" category, as did the 10 countries joining the European Union this week.

Other Eastern European nations fell into the "partly free" or "not free" grouping.

Bulgaria dropped from "free" to "partly free" because of increased government regulations, attacks on journalists, and legal harassment.

Restrictive new media laws in Moldova pulled that country down from "partly free" to "not free."

The report said any changes in Georgia under the new leadership of President Mikheil Saakashvili were too early to record.

The Central Asian countries remained static on Freedom House's "not free" list. So did Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, although Karlekar said she found a bright spot in Iraq.

"In terms of positive trends, there was really only one country this year that showed a distinct improvement and that was Iraq, basically because of regime change and the fall of Saddam Hussein. We're still ranking Iraq as a 'not free' country, but in terms of the numbers, it increased dramatically. Although there are still many problems in Iraq, it was definitely an improvement from the year before when it was actually ranked in the bottom five countries in the world in our survey," Karlekar said.

Our correspondent asked UNESCO's Mogens Schmidt whether the agency's press-freedom advocates are discouraged, given this rather drab rendering of the press-freedom picture around the world. Schmidt is director of the agency's Division of Freedom of Expression, Democracy and Peace.

Reached by telephone in Belgrade, Schmidt said press-freedom advocates labor not so much for a perfect world of press freedom as for an improved one. "We are doing the work we're doing in order to assist -- wherever it is possible -- journalists, NGOs, professional organizations, [and the] authorities, as well, in order to create the best possible, most free, liberal conditions for the press, or for the media -- not just the press, of course," he said.

Schmidt said he has to look no further than the region where UNESCO's Press Freedom Day conference is located this year, Belgrade, to find cause for encouragement.

"But even though there are still problems, you could say, on the relationship between authorities and the media in several countries in this region, Southeast Europe, even though that is the case, there is free media in every single country here now. There is not one country in Southeastern Europe where there is not free and independent media. And you couldn't say that 10 years ago. So, at the same time as the situation is not wonderful, [not] a rosy situation, I think there are clear glimpses of hope," Schmidt said.

UNESCO plans to hold next year's World Press Freedom Day conference in Africa.

(More information about World Press Freedom Day activities in Belgrade can be found at