Journalists faced an increasingly grim working environment in 2008, with global press freedom declining for a seventh straight year and deterioration occurring for the first time in every region, according to Freedom House's annual media study. The rollback was not confined to traditionally authoritarian states; with Israel, Italy and Hong Kong slipping from the study's Free category to Partly Free status.
"The journalism profession today is up against the ropes and fighting to stay alive, as pressures from governments, other powerful actors and the global economic crisis take an enormous toll," said Jennifer Windsor, Freedom House executive director. "The press is democracy's first defense and its vulnerability has enormous implications for democracy if journalists are not able to carry out their traditional watchdog role."
Freedom House formally released the findings from Freedom of the Press 2009 in Washington in front of the organization's giant Map of Press Freedom at the Newseum. The study indicates that there were twice as many losses as gains in 2008, with declines and stagnation in East Asia of particular concern. While parts of South Asia and Africa made progress, overall these gains were overshadowed by a campaign of intimidation targeting independent media, particularly in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East and North Africa.
There were some notable improvements. The Maldives made the study's largest jump, moving to the Partly Free category with the adoption of a new constitution protecting freedom of expression and the release of a prominent journalist from life imprisonment. Guyana regained its Free rating with fewer attacks on journalists and a government decision to lift a boycott on advertising in the main independent newspaper.
Out of the 195 countries and territories covered in the study, 70 (36 percent) are rated Free, 61 (31 percent) are rated Partly Free and 64 (33 percent) are rated Not Free. This represents a modest decline from the 2008 survey in which 72 countries and territories were Free, 59 Partly Free and 64 Not Free. The new survey found that only 17 percent of the world's population lives in countries that enjoy a Free press.
Key regional findings include:
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- Asia Pacific: Cambodia dropped to Not Free status because of increased violence against journalists. Hong Kong slipped to Partly Free as Beijing exerted growing influence over media. China's media environment remained bleak. Media in Taiwan faced assault and growing government pressure. South Asia saw improvements in the Maldives, Bangladesh and Pakistan, while Sri Lanka and Afghanistan suffered setbacks.
- Central and Eastern Europe/Former Soviet Union: The region suffered the biggest drop in press freedom of any region, with journalists murdered in Bulgaria and Croatia and assaulted in Bosnia. Russia's score declined with the judiciary unwilling to protect journalists from attacks, as well as the frequent targeting of independent media by regulators.
- Middle East and North Africa: The region continues to have the world's lowest level of press freedom. Restrictions on journalists and official attempts to influence coverage during the Gaza conflict led to Israel's Partly Free status. The Israeli-Occupied Territories/Palestinian Authority saw declines with both Hamas and Fatah intimidating journalists. Iraq saw the security environment for journalists improve and new legal protections for media in the Kurdish areas.
- Sub-Saharan Africa: Press freedom suffered in Senegal with an increase in both legal and extralegal action taken against media. In Madagascar, media outlets critical of the government were targeted. Other declines were seen in Botswana, Chad, Congo (Brazzaville), Lesotho, Mauritania, South Africa and Tanzania. Comoros, Sierra Leone, Angola and Liberia improved.
- Americas: Guyana regained its Free rating, while Haiti and Uruguay saw significant improvement. However, Mexico's score dropped again because of increased violence, the government's unwillingness to make legal reforms, and pressure on media from local and state officials. Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala and Nicaragua registered major declines.
- Western Europe: The region continues to boast the world's highest level of press freedom. However, Italy slipped back into the Partly Free category with free speech limited by courts and libel laws, increased intimidation of journalists by organized crime and far-right groups, and concerns over the concentration of media ownership. Greece also suffered a significant decline.
Freedom House has assessed the degree of print, broadcast and internet freedom in every country in the world since 1980. The 2009 ratings are based on an assessment of the legal, political and economic environments in which journalists worked in 2008.
"The declines in East Asia are particularly disappointing, given the increased attention on the region because of the Beijing Olympics," said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Freedom House senior researcher and managing editor of the study. "China should have had a better record in 2008 and upheld its promise to ensure press freedom during the Olympics, but instead it chose to remain the world's largest repressor of media freedom."
Key trends that led to numerical movements in the study include:
- Fragile Freedoms: Declines in Israel, Italy and Taiwan illustrate that established democracies with traditionally open media are not immune to restricting media freedom. Over the last five years, a number of emerging democracies have also suffered considerable declines in press freedom including: Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Thailand, the Philippines and Senegal.
- Consolidating Control: Authoritarian states are increasingly consolidating control of the media. In the last five years, space for independent media shrunk significantly in countries like Russia, Ethiopia and The Gambia.
- Violence and Impunity: The level of violence and physical harassment directed at the press by both government and non-state actors continues to rise in many countries. Many of these cases go unsolved and these attacks have a chilling effect on media, contributing to self-censorship.
- Punitive laws: Both governments and private individuals continue to restrict media freedom through laws that forbid "inciting hatred," commenting on sensitive topics such as religion or ethnicity, or "endangering national security." Libel and defamation laws remain a widespread way to punish the press.
- New media: Freedom House's recently released internet freedom index finds that new media outlets are often freer than traditional media and have the potential to open repressive media environments such as China and Iran. However, as new media gains influence, governments are beginning to crack down on internet users by employing traditional means of repression.
The world's worst-rated countries continue to include Burma, Cuba, Eritrea, Libya, North Korea and Turkmenistan. The study found that the level of media freedom in these countries remained stagnant in 2008, despite hope that the internet and new media might provide openings in the media environment.
The methodology and graphics from the survey are available by contacting Laura Ingalls at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling +1-202-683-0909. Full reports for select countries and territories in the study will be available in June.