Freedom of the press still under threat

| 03/05/2012

70458_Press-and-Censorship-by-Arcadio-Esquivel-Cagle-Cartoons-La-Prensa-Panama.jpg(CNS): Gains in press freedom in the Middle East and North Africa meant that, for the first time in eight years, global media freedom did not experience an overall decline, according to a Freedom House report. But as the international community marked World Press Freedom Day on Thursday the organisaiton said that downgrades in some previously free countries prevented an overall improvement and presented a continuing threat to real press freedom. Independent media still faces challenges in some Middle East states such as Bahrain and Syria. In China, Russia, Iran, and Venezuela government still uses a variety of techniques to maintain a tight grip on the press, including detaining and jailing critics, closing down media outlets, and bringing legal cases against journalists.

Following threats to media freedom in a number of well-established democracies in recent years, declines in Chile and Hungary resulted in status downgrades from Free to Partly Free. Substantial deterioration was also noted in the Partly Free media environments of Ecuador, Macedonia, Malawi, Uganda, and Ukraine.

Of the 197 countries and territories assessed during 2011, a total of 66 or only 33.5%  were rated Free. 72,  or 36.5%, were rated Partly Free but 59 countries, or 30%, were rated Not Free. The analysis found that only 14.5% of the world’s population lives in countries with a free press.

The report, "Freedom of the Press 2012: Breakthroughs and Pushback in the Middle East", found that three countries—Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia—experienced significant improvements as a result of the Arab Spring. Dramatic gains in press freedom in Tunisia and Libya in particular marked major break throughs for countries long governed by autocratic rulers. Outside the Middle East and North Africa region, positive improvements were seen in countries including Burma, Indonesia, Niger, the Philippines, Thailand, and Zambia

“The newly opened media environments in countries like Tunisia and Libya, while still tenuous and far from perfect, are critical for the future of democratic development in the region and must be nurtured and protected,” said David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House. “Also of great concern are those countries, both in the Middle East and around the world, where authoritarian regimes are now on the defensive, creating an even more perilous situation for journalists.”

The report noted several trends driving the ongoing threats to media freedom in 2011, including censorship, information blackouts and sophisticated internet and text-message filtering. Varied challenges continue to affect free media in a number of democratic countries, including India, Israel, Italy, South Africa and South Korea, Freedom House said, adding that there is a heightened harassment of journalists and efforts bygovernment to seize control over the legal and regulatory framework for media.

“Over the past several years, we have seen a disturbing decline in press freedom in established democracies, including this year’s downgrades of Hungary and Chile. Threats to media freedom often have a direct correlation with the country’s overall democratic performance,” said Karin Karlekar, project director of Freedom of the Press.

According to the report, the Americas experienced a worsening of press freedom in 2011. There were two negative status changes, with Chile and Guyana moving from Free to Partly Free. Ecuador saw a significant score decline, and the media environment remained extremely restrictive in Cuba and Venezuela. Mexico continued to be one of world’s most dangerous places for journalists, with high levels of violence and impunity for crimes against media workers. The United States is still one of the stronger performers in the region, but it also experienced a slight decline in 2011 due to difficulties encountered by journalists covering the Occupy protests.

Meanwhile in Europe, which has consistently boasted the highest level of press freedom worldwide, the use of super injunctions and riot-related restrictions caused a decline in the United Kingdom’s level of press freedom. Turkey’s score worsened by one point as the government continued to harass and imprison critical journalists.

The world’s eight worst-rated countries are Belarus, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In these states, independent media are either non-existent 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.

Reporters Without Borders also noted Thursday that a total of 21 journalists and 6 citizen journalists have been killed since the start of 2012. It said that cameramen and news photographers are also favourite targets for repressive regimes that understand only too well the impact of images and their power of providing information.

Following  the Arab Spring, Reporters Without Borders has opened an office in Tunisia and plans one in Libya to encourage the government’s efforts to build a free and pluralist press.

Because of the growing dangers to which journalists are exposed, the NGO is calling on governments to implement international provisions on the protection of journalists in an effective manner. Five years after the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1738, a status report is urgently needed on the specific steps taken to implement it.

“Governments must accept their responsibilities and obligations under paragraphs 6 and 7 to do their utmost to prevent violations of international humanitarian law against journalists and to end impunity for such violations,” the organisations stated.

See Freedom House report here

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