Press Freedom Report: Middle East Gains Amid Global Stagnation

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By
Arch Puddington
Vice President for Research

For much of the past decade, global press freedom has been in retreat. This may seem counterintuitive in an era marked by the constant development and refinement of new communication technologies. Yet even as the internet, blogs, microblogs, mobile-telephone videos, and other forms of new media are reshaping the information landscape, governments are finding new and more sophisticated ways to control news coverage and manipulate political discourse.

The graph below, drawn from the findings of the newly released 2012 edition of Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the Press report, illustrates the multiyear trend of global decline. The red bars indicate the number of countries that experienced significant declines in their press freedom scores in each of the past five years; the blue bars represent the number of countries with significant gains.

 

Countries with a Net Annual Change of 3 or More Points

 

 

Note that while declines greatly outnumbered gains during 2007–2010, the changes registered in the 2012 edition of the report, which covers calendar 2011, were more balanced. This is in large measure due to improvements in a region that has historically been deeply inhospitable to media freedom: the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, as measured by Freedom House,  media freedom made what can only be described as huge gains in two Arab countries, Libya and Tunisia, and more modest progress in a third country, Egypt. It is no exaggeration to say that these advances represent the most important positive development in years.

 

However, as the next set of graphs make clear, the dramatic improvements in the Middle East and North Africa, combined with smaller gains in Asia, masked continued declines in other regions. In two regions, the Americas and Central and Eastern Europe/Eurasia, declines in the average score were recorded for each of the past five calendar years. The results for sub-Saharan Africa and Western Europe were less bleak, but they still reflected an overall negative trend.

 

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

Even in the Middle East and North Africa, the explosive improvement in the regional average score obscures considerable differences among individual countries. The map below shows how gains and declines were distributed across the region, with significant progress limited to Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Most other countries’ scores remained unchanged or underwent some degree of deterioration; Syria and Bahrain suffered sizable declines.

 

 

The following bar graph illustrates each country’s score for calendar 2010 and 2011, with a lower number indicating a freer media environment. As a result of developments in 2011, the Middle East and North Africa now includes 1 Free country (Israel), 5 Partly Free countries (Lebanon, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Morocco), and 13 Not Free countries and territories. While it is still the worst-performing region in the world, the Middle East and North Africa actually boasts a higher overall level of media freedom than the Eurasia subregion, which has 3 Partly Free and 9 Not Free countries.

 

 

The gains in the Middle East and North Africa are certainly remarkable, in part because they effectively transformed two of the worst media environments in the world—Tunisia and Libya. But the improvements are not yet well supported by new institutional, legal, and regulatory structures. Vigilance will be required as these countries seek to consolidate their transitions and begin adopting and enforcing new laws and constitutions. If the hard-won progress to date can be successfully defended and expanded upon, the year 2011 will mark a genuine turning point for press freedom in both the region and the world, rather than an isolated deviation from the prevailing negative trend.