Freedom of the Press Index for 2013—The More It Changes, The More It Stays the Same
Reporters Without Borders recently published Press Freedom Index for 2013 takes into account many issues of journalistic liberty, ranging from restrictive legislation to violence against journalists. Unlike the Press Freedom Index from 2012, which in many cases reflected dramatic political developments of the “Arab Spring”, this year’s index is “a better reflection of the attitudes and intentions of governments towards media freedom in the medium or long term”, according to the authors of the report. But while some countries have experienced dramatic changes since 2012, the overall pattern remains much the same. Europe’s regional indicator of media freedom, weighted based on the population of each region, is the world’s highest—17.5 on the scale from zero to 100 in which zero represents total respect for media freedom. The Americas follow with a ranking of 30.0. Surprisingly, Africa is a close third with 34.3, while Asia-Pacific and the former Soviet republics were ranked at 42.2 and 45.3, respectively. Despite the Arab Spring—or perhaps because of its aftermath—the Middle East and North Africa region comes last at 48.5.
While the press-freedom report does not consider political systems, Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire argues that “it is clear that democracies provide better protection for the freedom to produce and circulate accurate news and information than countries where human rights are flouted”. Democratic countries occupy the top of the index while authoritarian countries remain at in the bottom of the list. The same three European countries that headed the index in 2012 hold the top three positions this year. For the third year running, Finland has distinguished itself as the country with the greatest extent of media freedom. The second and third positions are occupied by the Netherlands and Norway. On occasion, this high degree of freedom of the press backfires; in 2007, for example, Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper, falsely alleged that Julia Svetlichnaja, the last person to interview Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian national murdered in London by polonium poisoning, was a Kremlin agent. Aftenposten eventually had to apologize, and pay Ms. Svetlichnaja’s legal costs. Particularly foul incidents involved Dagbladet, Norway’s third largest newspaper, which has a history of publishing anti-Semitic cartoons. In November 2011, the newspaper received strong criticism for running a cartoon that equated the situation in the Gaza Strip with the Holocaust. In 2013, Dagbladet published a cartoon depicting the Jewish tradition of circumcision as barbaric, which provoked strong criticism from the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Nor does democracy guarantee freedom of the press, as can be seen from the relatively low ranking of such European countries as Italy, Hungary, or Greece. In Italy (57th), defamation has yet to be decriminalized and state agencies make dangerous use of gag laws. Hungary (56th) is still paying the price of its repressive legislative initiatives, which negatively impact the way journalists work. Greece’s dramatic fall (84th, -14) is even more disturbing. The social and professional environment for Greek journalists, who are routinely exposed to public condemnation and threats of violence from both the police and extremist groups from both the right and left, is widely viewed as disastrous.
Like the top of the list, the bottom is also occupied by “the usual suspects”: Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea. Kim Jong-un’s accession to power in North Korea has not changed the regime’s absolute control of news and information. Eritrea (179th), which was recently shaken by a brief mutiny of soldiers at the information ministry, continues to stand by as its journalists die in detention; according to some observers, the entire country is vast open prison for its people. Despite its recently formulated reformist discourse, the Turkmen regime has not yielded an inch of its totalitarian control of the media. For the second year running, the bottom three countries are immediately preceded by Syria (176th), where a deadly information war is being waged, and Somalia (175th), which has just had yet another a lethal year for journalists. Other countries, such as Mexico (153rd) and Pakistan (159th), where many journalists were murdered in 2012—the deadliest year ever registered by Reporters Without Borders—also find themselves near the bottom of the list. Not content with imprisoning journalists, Iran (174th) harasses the relatives of reporters, even those of reporters working abroad.
Relative changes in the rankings are as instructive as the absolute placements of individual countries, hence GeoCurrents created the map posted on the left. Malawi (75th, +71) registered the biggest leap in the index this year, almost returning to the position it held before the repression that marked the end of the Mutharika administration. Côte d’Ivoire (96th, +63), which is emerging from the post-electoral crisis between the supporters of Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, has also soared, attaining its best position since 2003. Burma (Myanmar) (151st, +18) continued the ascent begun in last year’s index. Previously, it had been in the bottom 15 every year since 2002, but now, thanks to the Burmese Spring’s unprecedented reforms, it has reached its best-ever position. Afghanistan (128th, +22) also registered a significant rise, thanks largely to the fact that none of its journalists are currently in prison. Afghan press freedom nonetheless faces many challenges, which will probably be intensified with the coming withdrawal of foreign troops.
Other countries have significantly dropped in the ranking. Mali (99th, -74) registered the biggest fall in the index as a result of the turmoil it experienced in 2012. The military coup in Bamako on March 22, 2013 and the takeover of the north by armed Islamists and Tuareg separatists exposed much of the Malian media to censorship and violence. Tanzania (70th, -36) sank more than 30 places; in the space of four months, a Tanzanian journalist was killed while covering a demonstration and another was murdered. Buffeted by social and economic protests, the Sultanate of Oman (141st) sank 24 places, the biggest fall in the Middle East and North Africa in 2012. Some 50 Omani netizens and bloggers were prosecuted on lèse majesté or cyber-crime charges in 2012; at least 28 were convicted in December alone, in trials that trampled on defense rights. Journalists in Israel (112th, -20) enjoy real freedom of expression despite the existence of military censorship, but its ranking fell due to the Israeli military’s targeting of journalists in the Palestinian Territories. Palestine, on the other hand, rose eight places, even though it remains in the bottom quarter (146th). An improvement in relations between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas is said to have had a positive impact on the freedom of information, enhancing journalists’ working environment.
In Asia, Japan (53rd, -31) has suffered from a lack of transparency coupled with poor access to information on subjects directly or indirectly related to Fukushima. Malaysia (145th, -23) has fallen to its lowest-ever position, as information is becoming increasingly restricted. The same situation prevails in Cambodia (143rd, -26), where authoritarianism and censorship are on the increase. Macedonia (116th, -22) has also fallen more than 20 places following the arbitrary withdrawal of media licenses and deterioration of the working environment of journalists.
Particularly worrisome is the drop in the ranking by the BRICS countries, distinguished by their large, periodically fast-growing economies and their significant influence on regional and global affairs: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Brazil, South America’s economic engine, continued last year’s fall, placing 108th (-9); five Brazilian journalists were killed in 2012 and media pluralism continues to be restricted. Russia fell 6 points, to the 148th position, due largely to Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency. Since Putin regained this office, repression has been stepped up in response to an unprecedented wave of opposition protests. The country also continues to be marked by the failure to punish or even charge those who have murdered or attacked journalists. For example, the October 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya—a staunch critic of Putin and his war in Chechnya—remains unsolved; some analysts claim that FSB (Federal Security Service) was responsible this assassination. In Asia, India (140th, -9) declined to its lowest since 2002, due largely to increasing violence against journalists and growing Internet censorship. China (173rd, +1) shows no sign of major improvement: its prisons still hold many journalists and bloggers, while increasingly unpopular Internet censorship continues to be a major impediment to information flow. Although South Africa (52nd, -10) still has a respectable ranking, it has been steadily sliding downward and has for the first time dropped out of top 50. South African investigative journalism is threatened by the Protection of State Information Bill.
The position of the United States improved since last year, when it had decreased precipitously due to the fact that the crackdown on the Occupy Wall Street movement did not spare reporters. In 2013, the U.S. rose 15 places to 32nd, recovering a ranking more appropriate for the “country of the First Amendment”. Still, the US lags nearly 20 places behind the Western Hemisphere’s surprising leader—Jamaica (13th).
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