Freedom House: Press Liberty Declined Worldwide in ’06

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Nearly two-thirds of the Earth’s population live in places where the press is not free or only partly free, according to the annual global survey of press freedom released Tuesday by the think tank Freedom House.

Just 18% of the world’s inhabitants live in countries that enjoy a free press, the non-profit organization said, while 39% have a partly free press — and fully 43% live where the press is not free at all.

Of the 195 countries and territories Freedom House rated, 74, or 38%, were rated Free, while 58, or 30%, were rated Partly Free, and 63, or 32%, were rated Not Free.

Press freedoms are disappearing dramatically in Asia, the countries of the former Soviet Union, and Latin America, the New York City-based organization said in its report “Freedom of the Press 2007: A Global Survey of Media Independence.”

Looking back over five years of its assessments of media liberty, Freedom House said, Venezuela “had suffered the largest single decline in media independence.” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, backed by a legislature packed with supporters, has changed laws to pressure independent newspapers and television stations, whom he regards as political enemies.

Freedom House also singled out the “aggressive efforts by the Russian government to further marginalize independent media voices, punctuated by plans to regulate the internet.”

“The records of Venezuela and Russia are appalling, all the more so because of those countries’ impact on their regions,” Karin Karlekar, managing editor of the survey, said in a statement. “But we are also disturbed by the level of press freedom decline in what we had assumed were established democracies.”

Press freedom is deteriorating in other parts of Latin America, especially in Argentina and Brazil, principally because of violence directed at journalists by narcotics dealers and corrupt security authorities.

In Asia, Freedom House said, political upheaval and states of emergency set back press liberty most critically in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Fiji.

And it said press freedom had stagnated in the Middle East and North Africa after several years of modest progress.

Press freedom isn’t just about journalists, Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor said.

“Press freedom is like the canary in the coal mine,” she said. “Assaults on the media are inevitably followed by assaults on other democratic institutions. The fact that press freedom is in retreat is a deeply troubling sign that democracy itself will come under further assault in critical parts of the world.”

As in past years, the list is headed by Finland and Iceland, who are tied for first place with a score of just 9 on a scale in which 100 is the worst possible environment for the press.

The United States is tied at 16th place with Estonia, Germany, Ireland, Monaco, and Santa Lucia. The U.S. rating was a slight improvement from a year ago, but Freedom House said

“Although the United States continues to be one of the better performers in the survey, there were continuing problems in the legal sphere, particularly concerning cases in which legal authorities tried to compel journalists to reveal confidential sources or provide access to research material in the course of criminal investigations,” the report said.

At the very bottom of the list, with a score of 97, was North Korea, alone in 195th place.

Rounding out the worst 10, in reverse order were Burma, Cuba, Libya, North Korea, and Turkmenistan, each assessed a 96. They were followed by Eritrea with 94, Uzbekistan with 91, Belarus, Equatorial Guinea, and Zimbabwe, each with 89.

The report sounded a particular alarm about the expanding censorship of the Internet. China, Vietnam, and Iran “continue to convict and imprison large numbers of journalists and ‘cyberdissidents,'” it said.

“This trend has spread to other countries with restrictive media environments, including Russia, where the administration of President Vladimir Putin has announced plans to establish a mechanism to regulate internet content, as well as several countries in Africa,” Freedom House said.

The report, released in advance of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, had some good news.

Italy — the only European Union member that had been rated Partly Free by the organization — was assessed as Free in 2006. Italy was able to return to the Free status “primarily as a result of media magnate Silvio Berlusconi’s exit as prime minister,” Freedom House

“Several countries, notably Nepal, Colombia and Haiti, registered status improvements due largely to greater overall political openness and an improved security environment,” it added. “Cambodia and the Central African Republic improved due to enhanced legal protections for journalists.”

The full report is available online here with a global chart giving the scores for every country in the world.

The 27-year-old survey assesses the degree of print, broadcast and Internet media freedom by looking at three broad categories: the legal environment for media; the political pressures on reporting and access to information; and the economic pressures on what can be reported and how it can be delivered.

“The survey … bases its ratings not just on government actions and policies but on the behavior of the press itself in testing boundaries, even in more restrictive environments,” Freedom House said.

Freedom House identifies four trends militating against press freedom.

It said there is a “pushback against democracy” that seeks to neutralize or eliminate political dissent by targeting the press.

Press freedom was damaged in 2004 by coups and states of emergency, especially in Asia, that inevitably bring press restrictions.

Violence is one of the least subtle factors impacting press freedom, the organization said.

“The tragic murder of crusading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya is but one of the latest examples of what has become a disturbing global trend,” the Freedom House report said. “The killing and physical harassment of reporters is a particular problem in Latin America, where Mexico has recently replaced Colombia as the most dangerous environment, as well as in South and Southeast Asia, Russia, and Iraq.”

Finally, there is the increasing tendency to impose legislation against “blasphemy,” “hate speech,” “insults,” and the reporting of information that “endangers national security.”

“Governments have increasingly resorted to legal action in efforts to punish the press for critical reports on the political leadership, as well as for ‘inciting hatred,’ commenting on sensitive topics such as religion or ethnicity, or ‘endangering national security,'” Freedom House said.

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