Governments and non-state actors are largely still hostile to the media, two annual reports out today by Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalist find — again.
Of 180 countries Reporters Without Borders (RSF) surveyed in their annual 2014 Index, Finland ranked first in press freedoms for the fourth year, followed by the Netherlands and Norway, similar to last year. (The other top 10 countries were Luxembourg, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Denmark, Iceland, New Zealand, and Sweden.) On other end of the freedoms spectrum, Eritrea, North Korea, and Turkmenistan ranked as the top countries where freedom of information does not exist. (Syria, Somalia, China, Vietnam, Iran, Sudan, Lao, and Cuba followed suit.)
“The 2014 index underscores the negative correlation between freedom of information and conflicts, both open conflicts and undeclared ones,” RSF’s report concludes. Indeed, countries often associated with conflict in the news — like Mali, Central African Republic, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Iraq — have continued to rank among the lowest.
The problem is not just violence, however. RSF’s analysis continues: “Countries that pride themselves on being democracies and respecting the rule of law have not set an example, far from it. Freedom of information is too often sacrificed to an overly broad and abusive interpretation of national security needs, marking a disturbing retreat from democratic practices. Investigative journalism often suffers as a result.”
Press freedoms under the Obama administration have been on decline, according to RSF and CPJ reports. This year the U.S. fell 13 points (to 46th place) in RSF’s rankings, due to crackdowns on leakers and information leaks. (Though as the Washington Post noted, the U.S. ranking has fluctuated between these ranges over the last decade.) In the most publicized cases, the administration sentenced Pfc. Chelsea Manning (then Bradley Manning) to 35 years in prison, and indicted former National Security Agency consultant Edward Snowden, who has fled the country. The disclosure of the NSA’s widespread spying on citizens, coupled with reports of officials spying on Al Jazeera, Fox News, and Associated Press reporters, have further enraged — and scared — journalists.
As CPJ’s annual Attacks on the Press report concludes, “The secrecy surrounding the surveillance programs echoed a pervasive lack of transparency and openness across government agencies where, despite President Barack Obama’s promise to head the most open government in history, officials routinely refused to talk to the press or approve Freedom of Information Act requests.”
Iranian media is notorious for being tightly controlled, with access to independent news and social media sites blocked for the average citizens. Thirty-five Iranian journalists were in jail as of Dec. 1, 2013, according to CPJ. In a disturbing trend, at least 82 Iranian journalists have sought exile in the last five years, the highest rate worldwide. The media crackdown intensified before presidential elections last spring; in March 2013, Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi claimed that 600 Iranian journalists were involved in a BBC spy ring, justifying their arrests by the need to “prevent the emergence of sedition prior to the elections.”
Prospects remain uncertain going forward. “Iranian citizens began to voice hope that a new era of reform would begin with the election of a more moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, and his apparent support from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,” CPJ reported in the latest Attacks on Press. “It was not clear in late year whether that hope would manifest into greater press freedom in the country, and the revolving doors of Iran’s prisons continued to turn.”
Vietnamese bloggers have been at the forefront for the country’s fight for press freedoms: Of the 16 journalists behind bars as of Dec. 1, 2013, 14 were primarily bloggers or contributors to online publications, according to CPJ. In the past year seven bloggers have been arrested and charged with crimes ranging from “abusing democratic freedoms” to anti-state charges related to their journalism. Several opposition bloggers have also been taken to mental institutions, like the one pictured above. A new decree passed in July 2013 put in place further Internet restrictions, such as forbidding journalists from linking to foreign sites.
“We are appalled by the continuing persecution of independent news and information providers, whose most fundamental rights, including the freedom of assembly and the right to information, are being openly flouted,” RSF condemned in a recent statement responding to the violence against bloggers and journalists. “By ordering these arrests, the Vietnamese government is thumbing its nose at the United Nations despite having been appointed as a member of the UN Human Rights Council last year and despite having undergone a Universal Periodic Review by the Council only last week.”
Kenya dropped 18 points to 90th in RSF’s index this year, largely due to the governments heavy-handed response to media coverage of the Westgate Mall attack in September 2013. The government notoriously accused the media of not being patriotic enough, taking steps to block reports with which it disagreed. Kenya has one of the most vibrant media sectors in the region; however, commercial and political pressures are an increasing concern as the media market continues to mature, according to CPJ’s findings.
As CPJ reports in Attacks on the Press, “Pressuring journalists to shape news coverage in the name of patriotism and unity is not new, least of all in Africa. Yet, after a decade of unprecedented economic growth and infrastructure development on the continent, the stakes are higher than ever. Persistent challenges and inconvenient truths — such as the resilience of the Somali terrorist group which claimed responsibility for Westgate, and the Kenyan authorities’ lack of preparation for such an attack — could dent optimism, give pause to donors and investors, and threaten the standing of those in power. Politicians and other authorities feel a strong incentive to suppress reports of such problems.”
Brazil is an increasingly visible world player — but ranks No. 10 in CPJ’s impunity index, which highlights countries where governments fail to address crimes against journalists. At least four journalists were killed in 2013, according to CPJ, and many more attacks have gone unresolved. In addition to rampant violence, journalists also fear judicial censorship: Political, government, and business figures have filed hundreds of lawsuits against journalists in retaliation for coverage, alleging damage to reputation and invasion of privacy.
“The government’s proclaimed concern for the safety of an American journalist [Glenn Greenwald] then reporting for the Guardian of London, however, stands in sharp contrast to the dismal performance of Latin America’s largest country in protecting its own reporters from violence or ridding the country of its onerous criminal defamation laws,” CPJ reports in Attacks on the Press. “Brazil’s official reaction to the spike in violence against the news media — not unlike its response to widespread street protests in 2013 over rising public transport costs, political corruption, crime, and the government’s lavish spending on sports stadiums for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics — has been mainly rhetorical.”