Ukraine in 89th place in Press Freedom Index
Ukraine’s rating in the Reporters without Borders 2009 Press Freedom Index is a fall by 2 places from 2008 when it took 87th position, against 92 in 2007. Russia has fallen by 12 places and now stands at 153, slightly lower even than Belarus.
Europe no longer so exemplary, Russian tragedy deepens
For the first time since 2002, the press freedom index’s top 20 is not quite so European. Only 15 of the 20 leading countries are from the Old Continent, compared with 18 in 2008. Eleven of these 15 countries are European Union members. They include the top three, Denmark, Finland and Ireland. Another EU member, Bulgaria, has been falling steadily since it joined in 2007 and is now 68th (against 59th in 2008). This is the lowest ranking of any member of the union.
The biggest one-year fall of any EU member was Slovakia’s. It sank 37 places to be 44th. This was mainly the result of government meddling in media activities and the adoption in 2008 of a law imposing an automatic right of response in the press. Two candidates for EU membership also experienced suffered dramatic falls. They were Croatia (78th), which fell 33 places, and Turkey (122nd), which fell 20 places.
The impact of organised crime and the targeting of journalists account for the falls suffered by both Bulgaria and Italy (49th), which got the worst ranking of the EU’s six original founders. Il Cavaliere’s harassment of the media, increased meddling, mafia violence against journalists who expose its activity and a bill that that would drastically curb the media’s ability to publish official phone tap transcripts explain why Italy fell for the second year running.
France (43rd) did not fare much better, falling eight points because of judicial investigations and arrests of journalists and raids on news media, and also because of meddling in the media by politicians, including President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The region’s most repressive countries, Uzbekistan (160th) and Turkmenistan (173rd), have not evolved significantly and their journalists are still subject to censorship, arbitrary treatment and violence. The dialogues they have begun with the European Union and other partners do not seem to have borne fruit in terms of human rights and there is every reason to fear that the international community will sacrifice free expression in the race for energy security. Both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are rich in natural resources including hydrocarbons.
Russia (153rd) tumbled 12 places, below Belarus for the first time. The reasons for this fall, three years after Anna Politkovskaya’s murder, include continuing murders of journalists and human rights activists who help to inform the population, and physical attacks on local media representatives. They also include the return with increasing force of censorship and reporting taboos and the complete failure to punish those responsible for the murders.
Indicators point to a deterioration in the press freedom situation in almost all of the former Soviet Republics except Georgia (81st) and, to a lesser extent, Belarus (151st), whose government has initiated a cautious and so far limited improvement in its relations with the press as part of a renewed dialogue with the EU. It is hard at this stage to predict whether this ripple on the surface will swell or fade away.
Georgia was able to leap 39 positions because it did not fight a war during the period covered even if political tension continued to have an impact on the news media. Its South Caucasian neighbour, Armenia (111th), fell sharply because of several cases of physical violence against journalists and political tension that continued to affect the media and society.
There was no change in neighbouring Azerbaijan, where the situation continued to be really worrying. This was clear from the Reporters Without Borders monitoring of press coverage during the presidential election campaign in November 2008 and from the National Television and Radio Council’s decision to ban foreign radio stations (BBC, Radio Free Europe and Voice of America) from broadcasting on local frequencies.
The decline in press freedom continued in Central Asia, especially in Kyrgyzstan (125th) and its enormous, gas-rich neighbour Kazakhstan (142nd), which both fell more than 15 places. Kazakhstan distinguished itself by the number of libel suits brought against independent and opposition newspapers and its recourse to the time-honoured practice of awarding such colossal sums in damages that the publication is forced to close.
Kazakhstan’s worst-ever ranking since the index began in 2002 was also due to intimidation and violence against journalists and the prolongation of a law that subjects websites to the same restrictions as the traditional media. In Kyrgyzstan, concerns were fuelled by an increase in physical attacks and intimidation of journalists that led some to flee the country, one-sided coverage of an election campaign, and pressure on foreign radio stations, which need a prior accord with the authorities to be able to broadcast locally.
Turkey’s big fall was due to a surge in cases of censorship, especially censorship of media that represent minorities (above all the Kurds), and efforts by members of government bodies, the armed forces and judicial system to maintain their control over coverage of matters of general interest.
In Croatia, which hopes to join the EU very soon, certain aspects of Serbo-Croatian relations are a source of tension and are off-limits for the media. Journalists who violate the taboo are often the targets of violence. Organised crime groups have also been responsible for physical attacks on journalists.
Middle East & North Africa: Region performs poorly, Israel nose-dives
Israel cast down by Operation Cast Lead
This is the first time that Israel (internal) is not at the head of the Middle Eastern countries in the press freedom index. By falling 47 places to 93rd position, it is now behind Kuwait (60th), United Arab Emirates (86th) and Lebanon (61st). Arrests of journalists (and not only foreign ones), their conviction and in some cases their deportation are the reasons for Israel’s nose-dive. Israel’s media are outspoken and investigate sensitive subjects thoroughly, but military censorship is still in force.
Like the United States, Israel has a separate ranking for activities outside its own territory. Israel (extraterritorial) also fell, to 150th position, as a result of its offensive against the Gaza Strip, Operation Cast Lead, in which the Israeli military bombarded buildings housing Palestinian news media. Foreign and Israeli media were denied access to the Gaza Strip throughout the offensive.
Iran at gates of infernal trio
Iran (172nd) now stands at the threshold of the infernal trio of countries at the very bottom of the index after a major deterioration in its press freedom situation marked by blogger Omidreza Mirsayafi’s death in Evin prison, Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi’s arrest and the crackdown in the wake of President Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad’s disputed reelection in June. Many journalists were arrested and a Stalinist-style show trial began in Tehran in which the most basic rights of the defendants are still being flouted.
Yemen (167th) continued to sink towards the bottom of the rankings. Journalists pay for the government’s scorched-earth policies towards any form of separatism, not only in the north against the Zaydi rebels but also in the south. The Saleh government has drastically curtailed freedom of expression since May, imposing a news blackout on its military operations.
A similar downward trend continued in Syria (165th). Although there was less recourse to physical violence against journalists, the situation was very worrying, with repression steadily tightening its grip and closing off the remaining areas of freedom available to the independent and opposition media.
Although Libya (156th) rose a few positions in the rankings, its already limited tolerance of free expression suffered setbacks this year. The import of Arab and other foreign publications was permitted, but two privately-owned publications created in 2007 by Al-Ghad, a company owned by Muammar Gaddafi’s son Seif Al-Islam, were nationalised and the Al-Libya TV station’s bureaux were closed.
The situation of journalists in Iraq (145th) has evolved inasmuch as the problem is no longer the same. Instead of targeted threats from militias or terrorist groups, Iraqi journalists now have to cope with hostility from officials and politicians who deny the media access to certain areas. Abusive prosecutions and defamation actions against newspapers that expose corruption are now common. Even supposedly pro-government media are not spared.
The run-up to major elections was marked by greater hostility towards journalists in the Maghreb. There was an increase in prosecutions of news media in Algeria (141st) while President Ben Ali’s regime stepped up its suppression of all independent journalism in Tunisia (154th).
Morocco (127th) continued the fall that it began three years ago. The royal palace has become more vigilant about the “red lines” that the press must not cross but is changing the methods used to ensure respect. As with other regimes, financial reprisals are becoming the preferred weapon for use against journalists who go too far. Exorbitant damages awards now pose more of a threat to the Moroccan media that prison sentences.
There was unfortunately little evolution in the Gulf states, where there is an almost complete absence of independent media. The ruling families have a monopoly of radio and TV and the printing and distribution of newspapers, and self-censorship is systematic.