Freedom of the Press
Freedom of the Press 2011
Signs of change amid repression
by Karin Deutsch Karlekar
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.
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