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Press Freedom Suffered More Setbacks In 2009, New Report Shows

Some of the journalists recently arrested in Iran, which received its worst press-freedom rating in the 30-year history of the Freedom House survey
Some of the journalists recently arrested in Iran, which received its worst press-freedom rating in the 30-year history of the Freedom House survey
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By RFE/RL
WASHINGTON -- The world's press became less free in 2009, experiencing another year of setbacks. Among the top offenders were Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Iran, and Russia.

That's according to a new report by the Washington-based think tank Freedom House, which annually measures print, broadcast, and Internet freedom in 196 countries.

"This year, we found, globally, another year of downturn," says Christopher Walker, Freedom House's director of studies. "This was the eighth successive year where overall declines outweighed gains."

The Freedom House report assigns a numerical ranking to each country based on legal, political, and economic factors, and considers regulations that restrict media content, editorial pressure by the government, intimidation of journalists, and the structure of media ownership.

The findings show that in 2009 only one in six people lived in a country with a free press. That represents a slight decline worldwide compared to the previous year.

Fueling the trend were efforts by repressive or semi-repressive governments to consolidate existing control over the media -- from Africa to Central Asia and beyond.

Iran Repression Worsens

Iran, where the press environment has been designated as "not free" since 1982, received its worst rating in the 30-year history of the survey. It was ranked as the 10th most-repressive country for media in the world in 2009, a reflection of the widespread crackdown on journalists after the disputed reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Freedom House's Christopher Walker
Dozens of journalists -- including editors, reporters, photographers, and bloggers -- remain in Iranian jails, some charged with offenses that carry the death penalty. The government has also repeatedly blocked satellite transmissions and restricted Internet and mobile-telephone communication.

In Russia, which is seen as a benchmark for the non-Baltic states of the former Soviet Union, the government maintained its control over nearly all media outlets. The country's press freedom rating worsened slightly in 2009 and earned a "not free" designation for the seventh straight year. It is now tied with The Gambia in 175th place out of the 196 countries surveyed. 

Except for Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, all of which are designated as "free," and Ukraine and Georgia, both of which are "partly free," the nine remaining countries of the former Soviet Union join Russia in the "not free" category. That group includes three of the 10 worst offenders on the Freedom House list: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Belarus. In these countries, independent media is "either nonexistent or barely able to operate."

"Apart from individual journalists being under threat," Walker says, "we also see the infrastructure of news media coming under the control of governments and the dominant powers [in the non-Baltic countries of the former Soviet Union], such that there isn't any meaningful pluralism on the news and information that's relevant.

MOST FREE

1. Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden (tie)
5. Denmark
6. Belgium, Luxembourg (tie)
8. Andorra, Switzerland (tie)
10. Liechtenstein

LEAST FREE

187. Iran
188. Equatorial Guinea
189. Belarus, Uzbekistan (tie)
191. Cuba
192. Eritrea, Libya (tie)
194. Burma, Turkmenistan (tie)
196. North Korea
"Today, one could say in many ways that the globalization that we've seen over the past decade has really bypassed the former Soviet Union as it relates to news and information of political relevance."

Internet Battleground

The press landscape in Russia and in neighboring states was also marred last year by governmental failure to apprehend or prosecute journalists' attackers -- a trend Freedom House observed in countries ranging from Mexico to Afghanistan. The report says failure to bring the perpetrators of such attacks to justice both promotes self-censorship among journalists and encourages new attacks.

Another major trend in 2009 was the continuing emergence of the Internet as a battleground between freedom and state control. While the Internet continues to remain freer than traditional media, last year witnessed new attempts by many of the world's governments to increase restrictions. Along with well-documented cases of Internet censorship in China and Iran, access was also narrowed in countries such as Kazakhstan, which has drafted legislation to extend state control over online content.

Despite the global decline, some countries did experience greater press freedoms in 2009.

There were fewer attacks on journalists in Ukraine. Armenia and Moldova, while still considered "not free," registered modest gains as a result of reduced censorship. Iraq, while also remaining in the "not free" group, had an improved rating based on a reduction in deadly violence against journalists and "relatively unbiased" media coverage of elections.

The countries of Scandinavia remain at the top of list, with the greatest levels of press freedom in the world.

written by Richard Solash in Washington, with contributions from Nikola Krastev in New York
Journalists In Trouble

RFE/RL journalists take risks, face threats, and make sacrifices every day in an effort to gather the news. Our new "Journalists In Trouble" web page recognizes their courage and conviction, and documents the high price that many have paid simply for doing their jobs. More

 
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