| Worldwide Press Freedom Index 2005
No progress in Iraq, still the world’s most dangerous country, or in Iran, the region’s biggest prison for journalists
Western democracies slip back, with the US falling more than 20 places
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).
Little improvement in Middle East
Few of the region’s countries rank high in the Index. Israel (47th) does best but it slipped several places this year because of the army’s mistreatment of journalists in the Occupied Territories. This kind of violence decreased sharply during the year and is no longer dealt with in a separate section as in previous years. The expulsion of a French journalist in July also contributed to Israel’s downgrading.
However, lawlessness continues in Gaza and journalists have become targets. Four were kidnapped during the year and the Palestinian Authority (132nd) seemed powerless to prevent the situation worsening.
Prison, killings and threats
Iran (164th) once again has the region’s worst record of press freedom, with seven journalists in prison and four others provisionally free and in danger of being returned to jail at any moment. Akbar Ganji is still being held in solitary confinement despite a more than 60-day hunger-strike, an international campaign and several official promises to free him. Cyber-dissident Mojtaba Saminejad has been in jail since October 2004, serving a two-year sentence.
In Algeria (129th), President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is still trying to cow the privately-owned press. Editor Mohamed Benchicou has been in prison for nearly a year and a half and several other journalists have been given prison sentences for press offences. The situation is very difficult in the provinces, where journalists are still hounded and threatened.
Lebanon (108th) is traditionally the region’s top-ranking country on the Index but it dropped more than 50 places in two years because of the murder of journalist Samir Kassir in June. An attack that seriously mutilated journalist May Chidiac in mid-September boded ill for the future. Journalists have become targets since the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February and are paying the price of the poor security situation. For the first time for years, several fled the country fearing for their lives.
The US army (United States in Iraq, 137th) also violated press freedom, as it did in 2003 and 2004. Six journalists were jailed in Abu Ghraib prison without explanation and not allowed to receive visits from their lawyers, families or employers. Four journalists were killed by US army gunfire between September 2004 and September 2005.
Lack of independent media
A free and independent press still does not exist in Syria (145th), Saudi Arabia (154th) and Libya (162nd) and their inhabitants have no other source of news except the official media, which just puts out regime propaganda.
Conditions in Egypt (143rd) deteriorated sharply, with attacks on several journalists and with President Hosni Mubarak failing to keep his promise, made in 2004, to decriminalise press offences.
The authorities in Tunisia (147th) have tightened their grip on journalistic activity and President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s promises to allow more press freedom have proved empty. Bureaucratic censorship is still used to block new independent media outlets being set up and the national journalists’ union, with more than 150 members, was prevented from holding its first general assembly in September. Emergence of a free press remains a dream in the country that will host the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society from 16 to 18 November.
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|