The Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders has just published its first worldwide index of countries according to their respect for press freedom. The index shows that media freedoms are under threat everywhere, with the 20 worst-ranked countries drawn from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe. The report also shows that rich countries do not have a monopoly on press freedom, and contains surprises for Western democracies such as the United States and Italy.
Prague, 24 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The French media watchdog organization Reporters Without Borders has released its first worldwide index of countries according to their respect for press freedom. The index is a portrait of the situation based on events occurring between September 2001 and October 2002.
The index was compiled by asking journalists, researchers, and legal experts to answer 50 questions concerning a range of press-freedom issues, such as the arrest or murder of journalists, censorship, state monopolies, and the severity of punishment for violating press laws.
The report -- which includes 139 countries -- finds that press freedom is under threat everywhere, with the 20 lowest-ranked countries drawn from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe.
But the situation is especially acute in Asia, which contains the five worst offenders -- Bhutan, Turkmenistan, Burma, China, and, in last place, North Korea. In these states, the report says, press freedom is a nonissue and independent newspapers do not exist.
In the former Soviet republics, the report notes that it is still difficult to work as a journalist, and that several have been murdered or imprisoned. In Europe, Russia and Belarus rank 121st and 124th, respectively.
Soria Blatmann of Reporters Without Borders in Paris is responsible for Europe. She tells RFE/RL that the rankings of the Central Asian countries contain few surprises."In Central Asia, we have little information about the situation of press freedom. I am particularly referring to Turkmenistan, which has a very, very poor ranking (136th out of 139), and which represents for us the black hole of information in Central Asia. Information and press freedom is totally nonexistent [in Turkmenistan], and we have no information concerning the fate of journalists in this country."
Uzbekistan ranks 120th, despite the government's decision to officially end state censorship in May with the dismissal of Erkin Komilov, who headed Uzbekistan's agency for protecting state secrets. Self-censorship among journalists in Uzbekistan remains high, however, and newspaper editors are appointed by the government of President Islam Karimov.
Blatmann notes that Kazakhstan -- ranked 116th -- has witnessed an increase in the number of attacks against journalists, while reporters working in Kyrgyzstan -- ranked 98th -- also face the danger of physical attacks.
Sergei Duvanov, a Kazakh journalist who writes for opposition-financed Internet sites, was seriously beaten in late August by unknown assailants. His colleagues say the attack was an act of revenge for Duvanov's critical articles. In July, a criminal case was brought against him for "infringing the honor and dignity of the president."
In Kyrgyzstan, press-freedom supporters complain that President Askar Akaev has used the threat of international terrorism as an excuse to suppress the independent and opposition media. In addition, they say courts frequently issue damage awards in politically motivated libel suits, that the state publishing house has refused to print several newspapers that have been critical of Akaev, and that officials have canceled the licenses of several independent papers.
In Tajikistan -- which is ranked 86th, leading all of its Central Asian neighbors -- Blatmann says an independent press exists but that press freedom is not respected. "Tajikistan is relatively badly ranked because authorities -- according to the questionnaire we have prepared -- are totally controlling the printing and editing capabilities. Violations of press laws are considered penal infractions. Defamation, for instance, is sanctioned by prison penalties from two to five years if it concerns the head of state."
Observers have welcomed two positive steps toward more press freedom in Tajikistan. Last month, the independent Tajik news agency Asia-Plus received a radio license, becoming the first private broadcaster to serve the capital, Dushanbe. In July, Tajikistan's Prosecutor-General's Office dropped its criminal case against Dodojon Atovullo, the editor and publisher of the Russian-language newspaper "Chroghi Ruz." He had been accused of insulting President Imomali Rakhmonov and inciting ethnic, racial, and religious hatred, among other charges.
The freest press in the world is in Northern Europe -- Finland, Iceland, Norway, and the Netherlands, all of which are tied for first place -- countries where the report says press freedom is "scrupulously" respected.
Blatmann of Reporters Without Borders notes, however, that the ranking contains some surprises for Western democracies. The 15 member countries of the European Union all score well in the survey except for Italy, ranked 40th, and where it finds that news diversity is under "serious threat."
Blatmann says: "Even in the European Union, we have noted violations of press freedom. So it does not only occur in countries where we already knew there have been violations, but also in unexpected places such as Italy, where pluralism of information is being threatened. And particularly since 11 September, there have been a lot of problems concerning the protection of [journalists'] sources in the European Union, for instance."
In Italy, the report finds that Silvio Berlusconi -- who continues to combine his job as prime minister with running a privately owned media group -- is turning up the heat on state-owned television stations and has named what the report calls his "henchmen" to help run them.
Furthermore, the ranking shows that rich countries do not have a monopoly on press freedom. Benin in Africa -- ranked 21st -- and Costa Rica in Central America -- ranked 15th -- are examples of how the growth of a free press does not depend on a country's material prosperity.
The United Nations Development Program classifies Benin as one of the world's 15 poorest countries. Costa Rica, besides being traditionally the continent's best performer in terms of press freedom, earlier this year stopped giving prison sentences to those found guilty of insulting public officials.
Surprisingly, the United States -- at 17th -- ranks below Costa Rica because of the number of journalists arrested or imprisoned there.
Regis Bourgeat is responsible for North and South America at Reporters Without Borders. He tells RFE/RL that imprisonment of journalists in the United States often occurs because they refuse to reveal their sources in court cases. He also says that since the 11 September attacks, several journalists in the U.S. have been arrested for violating security boundaries.
"We have registered attacks against press freedom in relation with post-11 September. First of all, security services have perhaps become more nervous in the United States. We have one or two cases of journalists who have been questioned because they were more or less in a security area, despite the fact that they had all the required accreditation. We believe that this situation would not have happened prior to September 11. There is also the fact that since 11 September, [the U.S.] has adopted a certain number of laws aimed at controlling the circulation of information on the Internet."
Some countries with democratically elected governments still find themselves ranked far down on the index -- such as Colombia at 114 and Bangladesh at 118. The report finds that in these countries, armed rebel movements, militias, or political parties constantly endanger the lives of journalists -- and that the state has failed to make efforts to protect them.
The report also does not list a single Arab country among the top 50. For example, in Iraq -- ranked 130th -- and Syria -- ranked 126th -- the state uses every means to control the media and "stifle" dissenting voices.
In the West Bank and Gaza, Reporters Without Borders has recorded a "large number of violations" of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that guarantees press freedom, and which Israel -- ranked 92nd -- has signed.
(The complete report can be found on the Internet at http://www.rsf.org.)