Western democracies lose ground : the US falls more than 20 places
Colombia, Mexico and Cuba are holding back the continent
North Korea once again ranks last in the Reporters Without Borders fourth annual World Press Freedom Index. On this 167-country list, North Korea is in last place, closely preceded by Eritrea (166th) and Turkmenistan (165th), the other “black holes” for news where the privately-owned media is is non-existent and there is no freedom of expression.
Journalists working for the ”official” media in these countries are little more than mouthpieces for government propaganda. Anyone out of step is harshly dealt with : one word too many, any commentary that deviates from the official party line, a misspelled name-and the author may be thrown in prison or incur the wrath of those in power. Harassment, psychological pressure, intimidation and 24-hour surveillance are routine.
The Index released today also chronicles countries in such regions as East Asia (Burma 163rd, China 159th, Vietnam 158th, Laos 155th), Central Asia (Turkmenistan 165th, Uzbekistan 155th, Afghanistan 125th, Kazakhstan 119th) and the Middle East (Iran 164th, Iraq 157th, Saudi Arabia 154th, Syria 145th) – regions where journalists face the greatest risks and where government repression or armed groups prevent the media from operating freely.
The situation in Iraq (157th) worsened in 2005 when the safety of journalists became even more precarious than in 2004. At least 24 journalists and media assistants have been killed so far this year, making it the mostly deadly conflict for the media since World War II-a conflict that proved more deadly for the media in a few months than during the entire Vietnam War. A total of 72 media workers have been killed since the fighting began in March 2003.
But a growing number of African and Latin American countries have earned very respectable rankings : Benin 25th, Namibia 25th, El Salvador 28th, Cape Verde 29th, Mauritius 34th, Mali 37th, Costa Rica 41st and Bolivia 45th.
Western democracies lose ground
Some Western democracies slipped in the Index. The United States (44th) fell more than 20 places, mainly because of the imprisonment of New York Times reporter Judith Miller and judicial action that is undermining the privacy of journalistic sources. Federal courts are getting increasingly bold about subpoenaing journalists and trying to force them to disclose their confidential sources. Canada (21st) also dropped several places due to decisions that weakened source confidentiality, turning some journalists into “court auxiliaries.” France (30th) also slipped, mainly because of court-ordered searches of media offices, interrogations of journalists and the introduction of new press offenses.
Leading the Index once again are northern European countries Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Iceland, Norway and the Netherlands, where robust press freedom is alive and well. The top 10 are all European. The highest-ranking countries in other continents are New Zealand (12th), Trinidad and Tobago (12th), Benin (25th) and South Korea (34th).
Press freedom, economic development and independence
Countries that have recently won or regained their independence value press freedom very highly, thereby disproving the fallacy advocated by many authoritarian leaders that democracy takes decades to establish itself. Nine states, that have only existed, or regained their independence, within the past 15 years, are found among the top 60 countries in the Index : Slovenia (9th), Estonia (11th), Latvia (16th), Lithuania (21st), Namibia (25th), Bosnia-Herzegovina (33rd), Macedonia (43rd), Croatia (56th) and East Timor (58th).
The Index also refutes the theory frequently advanced by leaders of poor and repressive countries that economic development is a vital prerequisite for democracy and the respect for human rights. The top portion of the Index is heavily dominated not only by rich, but also by very poor, countries (the latter having a per capita GDP of less than $1,000 in 2003). The top 60 countries include Benin (25th), Mali (37th), Bolivia (45th), Mozambique (49th), Mongolia (53rd), Niger (57th) and East Timor (58th).
In terms of press freedom, the small Caribbean state of Trinidad and Tobago (12th) is still the region’s top-ranked country. El Salvador (28th)-a still-fragile democracy after years of civil war-came in second, followed, as it was last year, by Costa Rica (41st), Bolivia (45th), Uruguay (46th) and Chile (50th), where attacks on press freedom usually amount to intimidation and threats.
Argentina (59th) rose sharply in the Index because there were fewer physical attacks on journalists, the media won a fight to preserve source confidentiality and the press offense laws were relaxed.
The press law in Brazil (63rd)-which dates from the military dictatorship and provides for imprisonment-has yet to be repealed, even though it is no longer enforced. The local media is also still the target of violent reprisals, such as the murder July 1 of community radio director Jose’ Ca^ndido Amorim Pinto.
No journalists were killed this year in Peru (116th) but violence against journalists has soared to more than 30 incidents-60 in all, if we include incidents involving threats and intimidation.
Journalists face high-risk working conditions in Haiti (117th),, despite the greater press freedom enjoyed since former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in February 2004. Jacques Roche, of the daily paper Le Matin, was murdered on July 14, and Nancy Roc of Radio Metropole was forced to seek asylum abroad on June 16 after she was given kidnapping threats. Her radio station manager, Richard Widmaier, had narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt five days earlier.
Colombia (128th), second to last among American continent countries, moved up this year ahead of Mexico (135th), as press freedom is deteriorating in countries bordering the US. The Mexican media have been focusing on a “Black April,” when two journalists were murdered and a third disappeared in just one week. In Colombia, Julio Palacios Sa’nchez of Radio Lemas, was shot dead on January 11 in a region dominated by drug traffic and riddled with corruption. So far this year, broadcasting equipment has been routinely sabotaged and seven journalists have had to flee the region or the country.
Two more journalists were jailed in Cuba (161st), in addition to the 21 who have been held since the March 2003 crackdown. One of them, Oscar Mario Gonza’lez Pe’rez, faces 20 years in prison under Law 88, passed to protect “national independence and the economy.”