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Report: Press Freedom 'At Lowest Ebb' In More Than A Decade

  • Heather Maher

Young activists of the Freedom of the Press group wear T-shirts with their logo as they give out leaflets in Kyiv. Freedom House found a "significant decline" in press freedom in Ukraine.

Young activists of the Freedom of the Press group wear T-shirts with their logo as they give out leaflets in Kyiv. Freedom House found a "significant decline" in press freedom in Ukraine.

Press freedom worldwide has dropped to its lowest point in more than 10 years, with only one in six people now able to access free and independent media.

The democratic watchdog group Freedom House discovered that sobering statistic while researching its latest annual report, which it is releasing in Washington today, the eve of World Press Freedom Day.

The report, "Freedom of the Press 2011: A Global Survey of Media Independence," documents what the group calls "significant declines in press freedom" over the past year in several countries, including Egypt, Hungary, Mexico, Turkey, and Ukraine.

It names the Top 10 worst countries for free media -- defined as where the press can operate independently and does not face pressure or interference from outside forces -- as Belarus, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Myanmar, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Libya, and North Korea.

In these states, Freedom House says, "independent media are either nonexistent or barely able to operate, the press acts as a mouthpiece for the regime, citizens' access to unbiased information is severely limited, and dissent is crushed through imprisonment, torture, and other forms of repression."

A total of 63 countries were rated "not free" in 2010, including Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan.

The press is only "partly free" in 65 countries, including Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Romania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo, Moldova, and Ukraine.

Of the 196 countries and territories assessed during 2010, just 68 were rated "free."

Key Trends

In its report, the group identified key trends in the conditions for press freedom around the world.

Equatorial Guinea
North Korea
First, partly democratic and authoritarian countries are increasingly misusing "licensing and regulatory frameworks as a key method of control." Researchers found that in Russia, for example, denial or suspension of broadcast licenses and the shuttering of media outlets on fabricated grounds is one of the Kremlin's favorite ways to quash unpopular points of view.

Freedom House also found that authoritarian governments have increased their efforts to control how news is disseminated. Recognizing that information is now being passed via social networking websites, mobile phones, and satellite television, regimes are taking steps to block broadcasting transmission signals -- as Iranian authorities have done -- and access to websites like Facebook, which Pakistan did briefly and which China has done for much longer.

The group also found many incidents of journalists censoring their own reports or deciding to leave their countries because they fear attacks or harassment. This happened "everywhere from conflict zones to struggling democracies with a weak rule of law," Freedom House researchers said, noting that it was especially prevalent in Iraq, Pakistan, Mexico, and Indonesia.

Outside Pressures

But even in established democracies, media freedom is under threat, the group found. In places more associated with democracy than oppression -- India and Israel, Italy and Hungary -- Freedom House documented outside pressures that it said are eroding the ability of the press to operate freely and independently.

In the region encompassing Central and Eastern Europe and Newly Independent States, the press watchdog group says a majority of people -- 56 percent -- live in media environments that are "not free." Twenty-six percent live in "partly free" media environments, and 18 percent live in countries where the press is rated "free."

The group also noted some significant developments in that region.

First, press conditions declined last year overall in Central and Eastern Europe, where the environment for media has generally been favorable and improving.

Second, there was progress in unexpected places. Moldova experienced what the group called a "dramatic opening," and Georgia and Kyrgyzstan each benefitted from "smaller positive steps" that aided media freedom.

"Kyrgyzstan, although there was a lot of political ferment last year with the change of government and the serious outbreak of ethnic violence, there was a positive reform of the public broadcasting law, there was a decrease in libel suits against journalists, and there were some other positive trends that we saw," says report editor Karin Karlekar.

"So Kyrgyzstan actually improved, and we hope that under the new government things will continue to improve in Kyrgyzstan. It's actually a relatively bright spot in the region compared to its neighbors, which, as I said, rank among the worst performers worldwide."

But Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia remain countries of concern, and the group documented significant negative trends in Ukraine and Hungary, which last year passed a controversial media law that gives the country's media authority the power to monitor and impose fines on the media for violating "public interest, public morals, or order."


Turkmenistan's media environment worsened owing to the shutdown of a major mobile-phone service provider, which cut off many residents from outside sources of information, and Iran suffered further declines as a result of blocked satellite television and Internet services.

Journalists in Uzbekistan faced additional repercussions for their work, including a spate of criminal libel prosecutions.

Iraq's score worsened slightly because the government issued restrictive media guidelines and created a special court to try journalists. Moreover, additional journalists were assassinated, attacked, and jailed without charge, and parts of the country became more dangerous for reporters to work in.

Iran suffered further backsliding in 2010 due to the government's imposition of additional blocks on the Internet and satellite television, and its decision to restrict funding for antigovernment publications.

The media environment in Russia, which serves as a model and patron for a number of neighboring countries, is marked by the use of a pliant judiciary to prosecute independent journalists; increased self-censorship by reporters; impunity for the physical harassment and murder of journalists; and continued state control or influence over almost all media outlets.

In Azerbaijan, the state and ruling party dominate the media landscape, and independent journalists and bloggers continue to face legal and physical harassment for expressing dissenting views. In 2010, Azerbaijani officials openly disregarded repeated orders from the European Court of Human Rights to release Eynulla Fatullayev, a wrongfully imprisoned journalist.

Despite the Kazakh government's promises to enact reforms as a condition of its chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010, conditions in Kazakhstan also deteriorated. A spate of libel suits were filed against journalists and authorities implemented a new law designed to increase controls over the Internet.

In one of the year's largest numerical jumps, Moldova's score rose dramatically, and was upgraded from "not free" to "partly free" to reflect the new ruling coalition's steps to increase legal protections for journalists' rights and reform the regulatory framework. In addition, management at the state broadcaster was professionalized, new private broadcast outlets began operating, and officially sanctioned legal harassment of journalists declined substantially.

Significant gains were noted in Georgia due to an improved political environment that led to a reduction in legal and physical harassment of journalists, fewer instances of official censorship, and more balanced coverage by the public broadcaster.

Despite an outbreak of serious ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan, the country's score improved to reflect a lack of libel prosecutions and a new public-service broadcasting law. In addition, the interim government, which took power after the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiev in April, lifted bans on RFE/RL and several websites and newspapers.

Ukraine, which has consistently been one of the best performers in its sub-region in recent years, saw an erosion of media freedom in 2010. After pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych took office as president in February, broadcast frequencies were withdrawn from critical outlets and extralegal harassment of journalists increased, leading to greater self-censorship.

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