By: LEONARD R. SUSSMAN AND KRISTEN GUIDA
WORLDWIDE, JOURNALISTS were subjected to less violence in 1997 than in previous years ? small comfort for the families of 26 murdered journalists in 14 countries.
For the surviving practitioners, the press was restricted with growing subtlety, uncertainty and the misuse of the rule of law, according to a review of global press freedom by New York-based Freedom House.
A year ago in Liberia, warring factions burned down broadcasting stations and newspaper offices. As a result, the press censored itself to avoid the wrath of rampaging militia. Though factional violence against journalists and their institutions diminished notably in 1997, uncertainty remained. As Charles Taylor’s new government warned the media against making “derogatory remarks about the government,” the minister of information promised more stringent legal guidelines to “deal with the press” in 1998. Meanwhile, as one journalist told us, “fear is with us” ? fear that changing journalistic freedom exerts a destabilizing force and often leads to self-censorship.
In 94 of the 186 countries surveyed, the conditions under which journalists operate changed, for better or for worse: In 50 countries, press freedom declined while in 44 others it increased. Significant improvement was noted in eight countries: In the Dominican Republic, Hungary, the Philippines, and Sao Tome & Principe the press went from partly free to free. In Albania, Central African Republic, Liberia and Zambia the rating rose to partly free, from not free.
Journalistic freedom declined significantly in eight nations: Brazil’s media moved from free to partly free, while Congo-Brazzaville, Djibouti, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Qatar and Zimbabwe went from partly free to not free.
The murders of two journalists in Brazil heightened tensions between politicians and journalists who cover political corruption. The legislature moved to rein in the press with a bill that would allow unlimited financial awards in libel suits and would hold individual journalists liable for fines of up to $900,000.
In Jordan, media criticism of government policies spurred broad restrictions on news content. Amendments to the 1993 Press and Publications Law widened earlier limits to include a ban on disclosure of government documents and news about the security services. The changes lift the capital requirements for licensing of publications, and provide for suspension, closure and high fines for violators. At least 13 weekly papers have been suspended under the amendments, and the government has barred the entry of several foreign Arab publications for alleged violation of the law.
Compared with their 1996 ratings, 36 countries improved press freedom, while in 42 nations press freedom declined, Freedom House said. Press freedom was unchanged in 92 of the world’s 186 countries.
The survey examines the degree to which print and broadcast journalism is independent of government. Political and economic pressures on news content are assessed, along with distortions resulting from commercial controls. The year-round study employs some 20 criteria to place each country in one of the three categories.
Of the world’s population, 1,165 million (20%) in 67 countries (36% of nations) reside in free-press areas; 2,196 million (38%) in 54 countries (29%) have access to partly free news media; and 2,472 million (42%) people live in 65 countries (35%) where the press is not free.
The regional division is diverse:
u The most restrictive area is the Middle East, where one country has a free press (Israel), another is partly free (Kuwait), and 12 are not free.
u In Africa, the survey said seven nations enjoy a free press (Benin, Botswana, Mali, Mauritius, Namibia, Sao Tome and Principe, and South Africa), 18 enjoy some press freedom, and 29 nations are subject to press controls.
u Among Asian nations, five have a free press (Japan, South Korea, Papua New Guinea, Philippines and Taiwan), 12 are partly free, and 19 not free.
u In Europe, 27 countries have a free press, five have a partly free press, and four nations have a controlled press.
u Latin America and the Caribbean have 17 free-press nations, 15 partly free and one (Cuba) not free.
u Oceania lists eight free and three partly free.
u In North America, Canada and the United States enjoy press freedom.
Last year was less deadly for journalists: 26 were killed because of their reporting, 20 fewer than in 1996; 30 more were kidnapped or disappeared, vs. 47 in 1996; some 284 were arrested, down from 372; 231 were beaten, assaulted or tortured, down from 297; and 147 suffered various forms of harassment, vs. 214 a year before.
While, for journalists, violence or fresh memories of it persists in three-quarters of the world’s nations, in many places the imminent threat is the use or misuse of the rule of law to restrict news. A Freedom House study in 1997 found that in 43 countries some 33 different kinds of laws were drafted to threaten, regulate or ? at worst ? confiscate or ban news media. There were five broad categories of restrictions: security laws, insult laws, laws enforcing “responsible journalism,” economy-protection laws and desperation laws. Their common factor is the exploitation of democratic rhetoric to weaken the free flow of information ? under the guise of protecting the public.
Even the most democratic states weigh new legislation to protect privacy or fight pornography. Parliament in the United Kingdom has threatened for years to restrict journalists for invading individual privacy. The threat surfaced again in 1997, when some blamed photographers for the auto crash that killed Princess Diana. The U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down federal legislation designed to restrict pornography on the Internet. Elsewhere, Freedom House found even more restrictive laws, often ambiguously worded, being drafted or enacted.
Security laws, for example, aim to prosecute the press for violating national “security,” “state interests,” public order, or even public “values” ? all wide open to interpretation. Such language enables governments to target news organizations or journalists for nearly anything deemed objectionable. A bill in Cameroon would ban newspapers that attack “the public order” or that violate “good behavior and values.”
Insult laws are increasingly popular and can subject journalists to years in prison. They penalize reporters for insulting or violating the privacy of officials. In 13 Latin American countries, among others, insult laws remain on the books. In some places, journalists may be charged with “defamation” of the government, a charge similar to criminal sedition. Thus, exposing illegal actions of an official may result in a charge against the journalist rather than the corrupt official. In most Islamic countries, it is a serious offense to criticize the rulers, or Islam. In Croatia, Parliament approved a seditious libel law allowing legal proceedings for offending or slandering the president, parliament speaker, prime minister or judges. Government provides such self-protection rather than face public reaction to news reports of controversial official acts.
Western Europeans in the Council of Europe have struggled for several years to devise a legislative formula which would prod journalists to act “responsibly” ? a seemingly innocuous insistence. When journalists debate press responsibility they often find room for improvement, but when governments get involved, “responsible” takes on new meaning, because governments ultimately define and enforce responsibility. The 20-year history of Freedom House’s survey has chronicled subtle and blatant acts of governments as they act to ensure press “responsibility” ? and failure to measure up often carries serious penalties for journalists.
Some new press law proposals insist that reportage be based on “truth.” Whose truth? Usually, the information ministry’s. Colombia last year gave a regulatory commission broad authority to take TV news shows off the air to protect the nation’s “honor” and to ensure “truthful and impartial” news. The measure’s constitutionality is questionable, but it clouds the airwaves. Several countries ? Bulgaria, Colombia, India and the Palestinian Authority among them ? last year considered enforcing the “right” of reply, which justified as an assurance of journalistic fairness but feared by journalists as a weapon for controlling information. The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected the notion of a right to reply as a violation of First Amendment freedom: the freedom to choose press content.
Economic-protection laws may have contributed significantly to the current financial instability in Asia. For years, many Asian governments used laws to preclude reporting on corruption in business and government. Thus insufficiently collateralized loans to cronies of officials may have gone unreported for fear of harsh reprisals against journalists. Despite the hype about Asia’s economic “miracle,” a free market system without information transparency poses serious problems. Then there are desperation laws, as we call them, which don’t even pretend at rational justification. Such laws close the gap between government ownership and government control of news media. Mere discussion of such broad-based legislation is perceived by journalists as a threat of physical or professional mayhem.
?(Sussman is a Freedom House scholar in international communications and adjunct professor in journalism and mass communication at New York University. Guida is a Freedom House research associate.) [Caption]
?(E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo. com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher January 24,1998) [Caption]