By: LEONARD SUSSMAN AND KRISTEN GUIDA
WITH THE rising tide of democracies in 1996, press freedom increased slightly in 39 countries, but was marginally reduced in 52 others. Often, insecure leaders tightened the screws on journalists for exhibiting “too much freedom.”
Significant improvement in press freedom was recorded in five countries, major declines in six. At year’s end, 2,374 million people lived in 63 countries without a free press, 2,249 million in 57 countries with a partly free press, and only 1,148 million in 67 countries with a free press.
Press freedom provides the citizen with journalistically balanced, politically unrestricted reports based on diverse sources of public and private information.
An Algerian man wounded during the murder of his brother, a radio commentator, would hardly be comforted because fewer journalists were slain in 1996 than in the previous year.
In Algeria, where more than 60 journalists have been murdered by Islamic extremist rebels in the last three years, the toll last year was ten; in 1995, 26.
Mohammed Guessab, who ran “Radio Koran” on the government radio station, was gunned down in August while driving with his two brothers in a suburb of Algiers. One brother was shot, the other killed along with Mohammed.
Worldwide, 37 journalists in 19 countries were murdered last year; 62 in 1995. In 1996, another 45 were kidnapped or “disappeared,” 349 arrested in 54 countries, and 273 others physically assaulted or tortured in nearly 50 countries. Given the 1,820 reported cases of violations against journalists in 116 countries, it would be difficult to persuade anyone, least of all victims like Guessab’s surviving brother, that press freedom increased at all in 1996. There were 1,445 recorded cases the year before.
Though the murder of journalists declined in 1996, according to the Freedom House survey, cases of harassment have doubled. Such violations are as detrimental to the content and quality of journalism as physical attack, and should be viewed as no less outrageous. Seventy-three death threats against journalists in 23 countries in 1996 were crude but effective forms of persuasion. Self-censorship becomes endemic after governments threaten to enforce restrictive press laws or ban criticism of political leaders. The word leaks out that critical reporting, investigative journalism, or even fairly balanced reportage is dangerous.
Fewer killings and increased harassment of journalists combined in 1996 with a sharp decline in the number of countries with marginally increased press freedom.
Last year, only 21% of all countries saw slight improvement in press freedom, compared with 45% the previous year.
This number reflects small movement within the categories: Free, Partly Free, and Not Free, and indicates greater political and economic influence on the content of the news flow.
Ironically, this occurs despite the record number of states ? 118 ? with democratic systems of
governance. In many of these, leaders are reluctant to free the media of formal or subtle controls. In
a period of transition, uncertain leaders timidly
test liberalizing policies only to retreat when
they believe new journalistic freedoms challenge political power.
Tanzania is an example. The East African state, which held its first multiparty election in 1995, permitted scores of newspapers to begin publishing. Journalists expected to report the voting. When official results hiking the ruling party’s slate did not match tallies provided by local vote supervisors, newspapers reported the discrepancy.
Some papers were banned, and journalists barred from further employment. Some 30 papers were expected to fold in 1996 because of high government taxes on newsprint.
The government has also blocked many papers from receiving advertising revenues. Although independent broadcast services were recently permitted, state-run television will be the only nationwide network.
Of 187 countries, only five significantly improved their press freedom standard in 1996. Benin, Ecuador, Madagascar, and Mongolia went from Partly Free to Free; Ghana moved from Not Free to Partly Free.
Six countries significantly declined in press freedom: Brazil and Hong Kong went from Free to Partly Free, and Bahrain, Niger, Croatia, and Zambia moved to Not Free from Partly Free.
To determine press freedom rankings, Freedom House employs 20 criteria, examining in four basic categories each country’s laws and administration, political impact on the content of journalism, economic influence, and actual violations of press freedom directed at journalists or their institutions. After such assessments, domestic journalism is termed Free, Partly Free, or Not Free.
There was movement within these categories. Thirteen countries with a Free press improved their standing: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Germany, Greece, Japan, South Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Namibia, and Taiwan. Among the Free, 14 declined slightly: Australia, Chile, Cyprus, Grenada, Ireland, Mali, Poland, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, United Kingdom, United States, and Uruguay.
The U.S., with the world’s most diverse news media, received the smallest reduction in the survey for trends regarded as troublesome. The new Telecommunications Act deregulated major systems, encouraging massive buyouts and mergers of large communications networks. These could reduce the number and kind of news flows available to the public, while placing fewer gatekeepers at the news flow switches.
The new Federal Aviation Authority authorization act empowers the agency to “ensure” that media organizations do not “intrude on the privacy of families of passengers” in airline accidents ? an act of compassion mixed with potential censorship. And, again, the CIA authorized the use of U.S. journalists for covert activities abroad “in extraordinary circumstances” ? a shadow cast over American reporters serving overseas.
Increasingly, too, privatization of government services puts under private bans information formerly accessible to journalists and the public through the Freedom of Information Act.
Among countries with a Partly Free press, 15 gained within the category: Congo, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Bulgaria, Lebanon, Macedonia, Malawi, Nepal, Nicaragua, Palestine, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Sao Tome & Principe, and Uganda.
The Partly Free press declined further in 23
countries: Antigua & Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Bangladesh, Comoros, El Salvador, Ethiopia,
Honduras, India, Jordan, Lesotho, Mexico, Morocco, Mozambique, Romania, Russia, Senegal, Slovakia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tonga, Ukraine, and Zimbabwe.
Small gains in the Not Free category were shown in 11 nations: Bosnia, Cameroon, Mauritania, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Vietnam, and Zaire.
Further declines were noted in 15 Not Free countries: Albania, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Cambodia, Cuba, Egypt, Gambia, Guinea, Kazakhstan, Liberia, Malaysia, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, and Yemen.
No discernible change in press freedom was noted in the 85 other countries surveyed. Of these, 36 are Free, 16 Partly Free, and 33 Not Free.
Regional assessments reveal the disparity of press freedom worldwide. Of Africa’s 53 nations, 7 (13%) boast a Free press, 19 (36%) a Partly Free press, and 27 (51%) a Not Free press. In 49 Asian nations (including the Middle East), the press is Free in 6 (12%), Partly Free in 14 (29%), and Not Free in 29 (59%). In Europe (West and East), of 38 countries, 27 (71%) enjoy a Free press, 6 (16%) a Partly Free press, and 5 (13%) have a Not Free press. Eighteen Latin American and Caribbean countries have a Free press (55%), 14 (42%) have a Partly Free press, and 1 (3%) have a press that is Not Free. Both North American countries boast a Free press. Oceania has 9 (75%) countries with a Free press and 3 (25%) countries with a press that is Partly Free.? E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo.com.
?copyright: Editor & Publisher Jan 25, 1997