Freedom of the Press

Freedom of the Press 2011

Signs of change amid repression

The proportion of the world’s population that has access to a Free press declined to its lowest point in over a decade during 2010, as repressive governments intensified their efforts to control traditional media and developed new techniques to limit the independence of rapidly expanding internet-based media. Among the countries to experience significant declines in press freedom were Egypt, Honduras, Hungary, Mexico, South Korea, Thailand, and Ukraine. And in the Middle East, a number of governments with long-standing records of hostility to the free flow of information took further steps to constrict press freedom by arresting journalists and bloggers and censoring reports on sensitive political issues. These developments constitute the principal findings of Freedom of the Press 2011: A Global Survey of Media Independence, the latest edition of an annual index published by Freedom House since 1980.

The report found that only 15 percent of the global population—one in six people—live in countries where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures. At the same time, the global media environment, which has experienced a pattern of deterioration for the past eight years, showed some signs of stabilizing. For example, the declines in the Middle East and in crucial countries like Mexico and Thailand were partially offset by gains in sub-Saharan Africa and portions of the former Soviet Union.

Prospects for a reversal of the negative trend were enhanced by the protest movements that emerged across the Middle East in the early months of 2011. While this report assesses developments in 2010—and thus does not take into account the potentially dramatic changes in Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab countries—its findings are a vivid reminder of the central role that the denial of press freedom and freedom of expression has played in the suppression of broader democratic rights in the Middle East and elsewhere. A principal complaint of the Middle East protesters has been the role of regime-controlled media in circulating government propaganda and stifling opposition voices. While the fate of political reform in the region remains unclear, the demands for change could well have ripple effects in other parts of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa, the former Soviet Union, and even China.

During 2010, however, many of these positive pressures remained below the surface. Indeed, authoritarian efforts to place restrictions on the press, new media, and other instruments of expression gained momentum in a number of strategically important countries, such as China, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela. These states were also notable for their attempts to restrict media freedom and influence the news agenda beyond their borders. Meanwhile, media in new and aspiring democracies proved vulnerable to a combination of hostile forces, including political leaders determined to mute critics, powerful business interests, drug traffickers, and armed insurgents or terrorists. Among the countries that experienced press freedom declines because of these forces were Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras, Fiji, Iraq, Turkey, Ukraine, and Yemen. Backsliding was also seen in relatively open press environments, with South Korea falling into the Partly Free range and Hungary experiencing significant setbacks.

The year’s most impressive gains were brought about through major legal and regulatory reforms and a greater official willingness to allow media freedom and diversity in Guinea, Moldova, and Niger. Smaller improvements were noted in Colombia, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, as well as a number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including Kenya, Senegal, and Zimbabwe.

Of the 196 countries and territories assessed during 2010, a total of 68 (35 percent) were rated Free, 65 (33 percent) were rated Partly Free, and 63 (32 percent) were rated Not Free. This balance is almost exactly the same as in the edition covering 2009, which featured 69 Free, 64 Partly Free, and 63 Not Free countries and territories.

The survey found that only 15 percent of the world’s inhabitants live in countries with a Free press, while 42 percent have a Partly Free press and 43 percent live in Not Free environments. The population figures are significantly affected by two countries—China, with a Not Free status, and India, with a Partly Free status—that together account for over a third of the world’s nearly seven billion people. The percentage of those enjoying Free media in 2010 declined by another point to the lowest level since 1996, when Freedom House began incorporating population data into the findings of the survey. Meanwhile, the share living in Not Free countries jumped by three percentage points, reflecting the move by three populous states—Egypt, Mexico, and Thailand—into this status designation.

The most significant regionwide decline occurred in the Middle East and North Africa, while smaller negative trends were apparent in the Americas, the Asia-Pacific region, and Western Europe. The regional average for Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union remained unchanged, with declines in Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic states balanced by improvements in the former Soviet Union. Meanwhile, sub-Saharan Africa registered a significant improvement in 2010, with dramatic political openings in some countries and positive legal reforms in others.

The year featured a total of nine status changes—five negative and four positive—with all but one spanning the Partly Free–Not Free divide. In terms of significant numerical shifts, statistics were far more balanced than in recent years, with declines (12 countries) only marginally outnumbering gains (11 countries).

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Freedom of the Press 2011 Release Materials:

Note: Reports with asterisks in the following list are for territories rather than countries.

Americas

Asia-Pacific

Eurasia

Europe

Middle East and North Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa