WASHINGTON -- Media freedom throughout the world declined last year to its lowest point in almost a decade, according to a new report from Freedom House, a U.S.-based democracy-monitoring organization.
Releasing the group's annual "Freedom of the Press" report on May 1 in Washington, D.C., project director Karin Deutsch Karlekar said the findings showed "negative trends in most regions of the world."
North Korea and Turkmenistan tied for the title of the worst country for media freedom, with Uzbekistan and Belarus close behind.
Karlekar maintained that, although Kyrgyzstan was in the "not free" category, it has a number of independent outlets and called it a "bright spot in the Central Asia region. She also noted that Kazakhstan appeared to be heading in the wrong direction.
"Kazakhstan is also very restricted and actually this year we're highlighting Kazakhstan because of a fairly significant decline that we noted in 2012, where the space for independent voices was sort of narrowed even further," she said, making reference to the "authorities banning around 40 opposition media outlets, increasing levels of violence and [the] legal persecution of independent media and journalists."
Georgia and Armenia were praised for showing strong improvements, but Karlekar warned that Azerbaijan’s media environment had deteriorated.
"Azerbaijan is also a country of concern for us and scores quite bad," she said. "It’s similar to [the] situations in Kazakhstan and Russia."
Karlekar attributed the decline in Azerbaijan's rating to "increased violence against journalists and also legal amendments that further limited access to information."
'Big Improvement' In Afghanistan
Freedom House found the Russian government has almost "complete control over television, radio, and the print press."
Karlekar suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin used that control during last year's presidential election and in a number of other ways.
"The situation continued to be quite bad and quite restrictive in Russia and we were particularly concerned with some of the laws that were enacted during the year, particularly, on the media front, a law that basically would allow for further censorship of Internet-based content, and that law took effect in November," she said.
"And, given that the Internet is this sort of relatively open space in Russia, that was definitely an issue that caused concern during the year for us.”
Afghanistan ranked as the second-most-improved country in Asia and was considered to have been one of the year's "success stories" thanks to the decrease in violence against journalists and a reduction in the official censorship and prosecution of the press.
"Afghanistan actually showed a big improvement this year in our index," Karlekar said. "Apart from Burma, it was the country in Asia that showed the biggest improvement, and we really saw a number of positive trends in 2012, including a decrease in violence against journalists, an increase in the number of new private media outlets that were more able to freely criticize the government and other political actors, and a decline in [the] official censorship and prosecution of journalists."
Karlekar said little had changed in Iran and the Islamic republic remained ranked in the bottom eight worldwide for media freedom.
She described Pakistan as having a very vibrant media, but cited a "very high level of violence and intimidation against journalists."