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Report Finds Press Freedoms Declining Worldwide
May 3, 2010

30 April 2010

Watchdog group says restrictions on the press are intensifying

By Jane Morse
Staff Writer, Department of State

Washington — Freedom of the press declined in almost every region of the world in 2009, according to a study released April 29 by Freedom House, an international nongovernmental organization that researches and monitors democratic freedoms around the world.

The report, Freedom of the Press 2010: A Global Survey of Media Independence, found that press freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year, and only one in six people lives in a country with genuinely free media.

According to Freedom House, the improvement in press freedom following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in 1989 has stalled, and in some cases reversed in the last 10 years. At the same time, there has been a dramatic expansion of online media as well as cable and satellite television. With the plethora of communication possibilities, total control over news and information has become more difficult — a situation many repressive regimes are working hard to overcome. Freedom House found that 2009 was notable for intensified efforts by authoritarian regimes to place restrictions on all conduits for news and information.

The Internet and new media have become the new battlegrounds for government control. Repressive governments are attempting to restrict Internet freedom with lawsuits, direct censorship, content manipulation and physical harassment of bloggers, the report says. The Chinese government, especially, has introduced several new methods of Internet censorship and has remained “a global leader in the jailing of journalists,” according to the Freedom House report.

Unpunished attacks against journalists encourage more violence against journalists in countries where there is weak rule of law, inadequate judicial institutions and a lack of political will to uphold free media, the report says. Governments remain unwilling to reform or eliminate laws used to punish journalists for reasons such as “inciting hatred,” commenting on “sensitive topics,” “blasphemy” or “endangering national security,” Freedom House says. Political upheaval makes journalists prime targets for restrictions and threats from both sides of a conflict, according to the study.

The globalization of censorship represents a growing threat to freedoms of expression and the press, Freedom House says. “Libel tourism,” in which plaintiffs shop around for jurisdictions in which they can count on favorable outcomes, has become a serious problem in some areas of the world. For example, foreign business magnates, princes and other powerful individuals have “increasingly turned to the British court system to quash critical research or commentary,” according to the Freedom House study.

Looking at the world’s regions, Freedom House found that only 48 percent of the countries in the Americas could be rated as having a completely free media. Cuba and Venezuela were deemed to have “not free” media environments.

The Asia-Pacific region was the one bright spot found by the study, even though the region is home to well-known, media-repressing regimes such as North Korea and Burma. Only 12 countries and territories are rated as “not free,” according to Freedom House. The Asia-Pacific region as a whole exhibited “a relatively high level of press freedom,” the study says. A drop in physical attacks and harassment has led to less self-censorship by the media in countries such as Indonesia.

Central and Eastern Europe, along with the countries of the former Soviet Union, underwent modest decline or no change. Russia remained among the world’s more repressive and dangerous media environments. Kyrgyzstan’s media freedom score fell; but Ukraine, Armenia and Moldova showed slight improvement.

In the Middle East, Iran showed the region’s biggest decline of the year due to the suppression of journalists in the wake of the June 2009 presidential election. Iraq saw some improvement for free media as political bias declined and attacks on journalists decreased, the study says.

In Africa, Freedom House found significant declines in the level of press freedom. For the first time since 1990, no county in southern Africa was scored as “free.” In a surprising status change, South Africa and Namibia both dropped from “free” to “partly free” countries. Freedom House cited slight improvements, however, in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Sudan and Mauritania.

Freedom House’s rankings for countries in Western Europe remained fairly stable. But, the report says, “the United Kingdom remains a concern due to its expansive libel laws.”