| Worldwide Press Freedom Index 2005
North Korea, Eritrea and Turkmenistan are the world’s “black holes” for news
Rigid political leaders block progress in most Asian countries
North Korea once again comes bottom of the Reporters Without Borders fourth annual World Press Freedom Index, released today. It is closely followed in the 167-country list by Eritrea (166th) and Turkmenistan (165th), which are other “black holes” for news where the privately-owned media is not allowed and freedom of expression does not exist.
Journalists there simply relay government propaganda. Anyone out of step is harshly dealt with. A word too many, a commentary that deviates from the official line or a wrongly-spelled name and the author may be thrown in prison or draw the wrath of those in power. Harassment, psychological pressure, intimidation and round-the-clock surveillance are routine.
East Asia (Burma 163rd, China 159th, Vietnam 158th, Laos 155th), Central Asia (Turkmenistan 165th, Uzbekistan 155th, Afghanistan 125th, Kazakhstan 119th) and the Middle East (Iran 164th, Iraq 157th, Saudi Arabia 154th, Syria 145th) are where journalists have the toughest time and where government repression or armed groups prevent the media operating freely.
The situation in Iraq (157th) deteriorated further during the year as the safety of journalists became more precarious. At least 24 journalists and media assistants have been killed so far this year, making it the mostly deadly conflict for the media since World War II. A total of 72 media workers have been killed since the fighting began in March 2003.
But more and more African and Latin American countries (Benin 25th, Namibia 25th, El Salvador 28th, Cape Verde 29th, Mauritius 34th, Mali 37th, Costa Rica 41st and Bolivia 45th) are getting very good rankings.
Western democracies slip back
Some Western democracies slipped down the Index. The United States (44th) fell more than 20 places, mainly because of the imprisonment of New York Times reporter Judith Miller and legal moves undermining the privacy of journalistic sources. Canada (21st) also dropped several places due to decisions that weakened the privacy of sources and sometimes turned journalists into “court auxiliaries.” France (30th) also slipped, largely because of searches of media offices, interrogations of journalists and introduction of new press offences.
At the top of the Index once again are northern European countries Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Iceland, Norway and the Netherlands, where robust press freedom is firmly established. The top 10 countries are all European. New Zealand (12th), Trinidad and Tobago (12th), Benin (25th) and South Korea (34th) are the highest-ranked countries in other continents.
Press freedom, economic development and independence
Countries that have recently won their independence or have recovered it are very observant of press freedom and give the lie to the insistence of many authoritarian leaders that democracy takes decades to establish itself. Nine states that have had independence (or recovered it within the past 15 years) are among the top 60 countries - Slovenia (9th), Estonia (11th), Latvia (16th), Lithuania (21st), Namibia (25th), Bosnia-Herzegovina (33rd), Macedonia (43rd), Croatia (56th) and East Timor (58th).
The Index also contradicts the frequent argument by leaders of poor and repressive countries that economic development is a vital precondition for democracy and respect for human rights. The top of the Index is heavily dominated by rich countries, but several very poor ones (with a per capita GDP of less than $1,000 in 2003) are among the top 60, such as Benin (25th), Mali (37th), Bolivia (45th), Mozambique (49th), Mongolia (53rd), Niger (57th) and East Timor (58th).
Asia is still the toughest continent for journalists
For the fourth year running, North Korea (167th) is at the very bottom of the Index. The regime, locked in a dispute over nuclear weapons with the international community, made no concessions whatever to press freedom. The secret police continued to hound those listening to foreign radio stations and journalists are reportedly still being held in concentration camps for professional errors or deviating from the official line.
King Gyanendra of Nepal (160th) is trying to wipe out 15 years of democratic achievement by the independent press with censorship and arrests and his government has sent soldiers to newspaper offices. About 150 journalists were arrested by the authorities in the first 10 days of September. The Maoist rebels killed, kidnapped and threatened journalists, especially pro-government ones, who criticised them.
Half the countries in the bottom 10 of the Index are in Asia. Despite some media privatisation in China (159th), the government’s propaganda department monitors the media, which were forbidden to mention dozens of sensitive subjects in the past year. The ranking of Vietnam (158th) improved slightly (no journalists are now in jail) but the ruling Communist Party still controls the media.
No improvement was seen in Burma (163rd) and the replacement of some of the ruling generals did not benefit the media. The much-awaited release of pro-opposition journalists did not happen and one of them, Win Tin, began his 16th year in prison. The censorship office monitors the press, even the death announcements columns.
Singapore (140th), which has a quite different style, still has a very low ranking because the government headed by the son of founding father Lee Kwan Yew keeps its grip on the media and uses drastic laws to crack down on the few independent journalists.
Some striking improvements
Press freedom improved in Tonga (63rd), where the democratic opposition and the courts managed to push back arbitrary measures by the king. Mongolia (53rd) recorded very little interference with journalists despite continuing government control of the public media.
Malaysia (113th) no longer has any journalists or cyber-dissidents in prison and peace accords in Indonesia (102nd) have opened up the former rebel province of Aceh to journalists. Despite occasional violence, the media works in good conditions and online media are prolific.
Democracies in trouble
Killings of journalists in the Philippines (139th) increased, along with censorship, mainly by local officials. President Gloria Arroyo showed intolerance towards the media, especially foreign, for exposing corruption. On Mindanao island, security forces were frequently involved in the murder or obstruction of journalists.
The independent press in Afghanistan (125th), which has played a key part in the campaign for the first democratic elections since the fall of the Taliban regime, was frequently attacked and threatened. The main target was the privately-owned station Tolo TV, several of whose journalists were attacked and one woman presenter murdered. Reporters are caught in the political crossfire in regions where the Taliban and warlords still hold sway. US and NATO troops were especially irritable with the media.
South Korea (34th) and Taiwan (51st) are getting closer to the European democracies but some authoritarian reflexes persist there, especially again the opposition media. South Korea’s ruling party pushed through a law about the “social responsibility” of the media aimed at conservative newspapers. The Taiwanese authorities cancelled the broadcasting licence of a TV station close to the main opposition grouping. Press freedom violations were very rare in Hong Kong (39th) despite self-censorship on topics known to annoy the Chinese government.
How the index was compiled
Evaluation by region:
- Middle East
Middle East index
|-||Trinidad and Tobago||2,00|
|33||Bosnia and Herzegovina||7,00|
|44||United States of America (American territory)||9,50|
|65||Serbia and Montenegro||14,83|
|82||Central African Republic||19,75|
|-||United Arab Emirates||25,75|
|137||United States of America (in Iraq)||48,50|
|146||Democratic Republic of Congo||57,33|