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World: Freedom House Report Says Global Press Freedom In Decline

While press freedom made important gains in some countries in 2004, increased restrictions were detected in parts of Asia and the former Soviet Union. That's the crux of an annual report is issued on Thursday by Freedom House, a prominent U.S. non-governmental organization. RFE/RL takes a look at the report ahead of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May.

Prague, 28 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Just 17 percent of the world's population lives in countries that enjoy a free press.

If you live in Central Asia, Russia, Afghanistan, or Iran you are not among them. You belong to the 45 percent of the globe's inhabitants that live in countries with media that is rated as "not free."

That's according to a new survey titled "Freedom of Press: A Global Survey of Media Independence" by Freedom House, a U.S. nongovernmental organization.

The survey says setbacks in press freedom were recorded in Pakistan, the United States, and several other countries. At the same time, improvements took place in countries where democratic changes appeared, such as Ukraine and Lebanon.

Freedom House has rated five countries including North Korea and Turkmenistan as "the worst of the worst." The organization says that in these countries, independent media are either non-existent or barely able to operate. In Turkmenistan, all media outlets are controlled by the state.

"Turkmenistan is one of the worst performers in the sphere of press freedom and we have seen no indication that this is improving; in fact, there're indications that there is a tightening of the information space in Turkmenistan," said Christopher Walker, director of studies at Freedom House. "Recently, there was a decree passed which forbids foreign postal services from delivering materials to Turkmenistan, which includes the delivery of foreign newspapers and magazines. So this is another step in the wrong direction in a country that sorely needs better information for its own citizens."

During the last year, press freedom conditions also remained dire in countries such as Belarus and Uzbekistan. Governments in these countries use legal pressure, imprisonment and other forms of harassment to muzzle the independent media.
Out of 194 countries and territories covered in this year's study, 75 were rated "free," 50 rated "partly free," and 69 rated "not free."

In the case of Uzbekistan, the report notes that authorities block critical and opposition websites.

"This is not limited to Uzbekistan. I think what we've seen is the Internet, even in countries where access is not so extensive, the authorities are very sensitive to content they can't control so they use denial of access as a method to control content that isn't to their liking," Walker said. "In Uzbekistan this has been a problem over a number of years; we've detected a bit of intensification of this activity over the last period we've covered."

Freedom House examines the degree of print, broadcast, and Internet freedom in every country in the world and gives it a rating of free, partly free, or not free.

Out of 194 countries and territories covered in this year's study, 75 were rated "free," 50 rated "partly free," and 69 rated "not free."

Media in all the five Central Asian Republics are categorized as not free due to "severe repression "in 2004.

Walker said that in Kyrgyzstan many journalists are longing for similar changes as in Ukraine.

"It's clear that many journalism professionals in Kyrgyzstan are eager to achieve some of the same forward progress as journalists in Ukraine have achieved," Walker said. "At this point I think the jury is out on whether this will happen on the short term. There have been recent requests to move forward with legislation that would create public broadcasting in Kyrgyzstan, which would be a very important step and a terrific signal both to the citizens of Kyrgyzstan but also to neighboring countries that this sort of reform in the media sector is possible."

In Tajikistan, the survey notes that the government launched a campaign against opposition newspapers ahead of the parliamentary elections.

But Walker said that press freedom media workers in all former Soviet countries face many difficulties in their job.

"In the media sector and for journalists, it's clearly a very, very difficult environment," Walker said. "There are almost without exceptions in all of the former Soviet states -- the non-Baltic Soviet Union -- severe restrictions on journalists and enormous hurdles for them to do their work. There are some small signs of promise in a couple of countries, one of which is Ukraine, but as a general matter the environment is very, very difficult."

In Afghanistan, journalists continued to be threatened by some officials, warlords, and other powerful people. However, some positive developments were noted. A new constitution was adopted, which increases legal protection for the press.

In the Middle East, only one country, Israel, has a free media. In Iran, press freedom deteriorated in 2004 and the crackdown on independent and reformist press continues.

Iraqi citizens continued to enjoy a wide diversity of media that emerged after Saddam Hussein's ouster from power. But press freedom remained constrained by instability and violence.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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