Washington, 4 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The private U.S. human rights organization Freedom House says only 20 percent of the world's people live in countries with a free press.
Freedom House made the statement at a news conference in Washington Friday to mark the release of its annual report on the status of the press worldwide. The report examines 186 countries and their system of mass communication.
According to the report, the degree to which each country permits the free flow of information to and from the public determines the classification of each nation's news and information media as being rated in three categories: "free," partly free" or "not free."
Leonard Sussman, the primary author of the report, told reporters that there are few changes from last year in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Sussman says one of the greatest losses of press freedom in 1997 occurred in Belarus.
Says Sussman: "In Stalinist fashion, the Belarus government last year used its power to restrict, harass and control the mass news media. What the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenka had already done de facto, it tried throughout the year to accomplish de jure as well."
Sussman strongly criticizes the Belarus government for harassing journalists, conducting sudden tax audits and forcibly evicting independent media outlets in 1997. He also says the government's plans to enlarge the restrictive functions of the Belarus State Press Committee -- including extending the number and range of penalties it may apply to an even wider scope of media "transgressions" -- is deplorable.
Sussman says while writing the report, he was forwarded a copy of a confidential Belarus government memo which put three new restrictions on the press.
Says Sussman: "The first was that thereafter, no government official would give an interview to an independent journalist. Second, no independent journalist could have access to any government ministry or premises. The third part....was that no government advertising would thereafter go to any independent newspaper or media."
Sussman says things have simply "gone from bad to worse" as far as press freedom in Belarus is concerned.
Among other countries in the region ranked "not free" by the report are all of the Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia.
Sussman says that while he saw progress for press freedoms in 1996 in Kazahkstan, that trend was reversed in 1997.
The countries in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union classified as "partly free" are: Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, Slovakia and Ukraine.
When asked by a reporter why Slovakia was in the same category as Russia -- where several murders of journalists occurred and more physical brutality against the media was reported in 1997 -- Sussman answered while murder was certainly the most horrific form of censorship, the report's primary concern was with the structure of the news-delivery system.
Sussman says the report focuses first on whether the laws and administrative decisions of the government influence the content of the news media. Next, he says the report looks at the degree of political influence or control on the media. Third, the report examines the extent to which the government exerts economic control over the media; and last the degree of government opposition to the media in terms of harassment, abuse, imprisonment and murder.
Sussman says Hungary made the most improvement, moving from having a partly free media in 1996 to a free media in 1997.
Among the other countries in the region listed by the report with a free media are the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovenia.
The report says the countries having the least press freedoms in the world are Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and Burma.
Sussman says worldwide, only one person in five has access to news and analysis that is not distorted or censored.
Adds Sussman: "In addition, the pervasive harassment of journalists, even in partly free countries, encourages self-censorship. An unfree press cannot help liberate an unfree society."
On a related note, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) -- a U.S.-based organization dedicated to protecting journalists -- Sunday released its annual list of "Enemies of the Press" to mark World Press Freedom Day.
Among those leaders listed by CPJ as the world's 10 worst enemies of the media are Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka and Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov.
According to the CPJ, Lukashenka is waging an "ongoing, Soviet-style campaign against independent and foreign media."
Niyazov is cited by the CPJ as ruling his country like an "old-style totalitarian, cult-of-personality Soviet dictator." The report adds that Niyazov is making Turkmenistan the most repressive of the former Soviet republics by cultivating a "pervasive culture of fear."