Reporters Without Borders, a top media watchdog, has accused Israel and the United States of unacceptable behaviour towards journalists in occupied Palestine and Iraq. RSF said on Monday the US had caused the deaths of five journalists in Iraq. And it said the Israeli army was guilty of injuring and threatening journalists in the West Bank and Gaza.
Reporters Without Borders is publishing its second world press freedom ranking. As in 2002, the most catastrophic situation is to be found in Asia, especially North Korea, Burma and Laos. Second from last in the ranking, Cuba is today the world’s biggest prison for journalists. The United States and Italy were given relatively low rankings.
Reporters Without Borders today publishes its second world press freedom ranking. Like last year, the most catastrophic situation is to found in Asia, with eight countries in the bottom ten : North Korea, Burma, Laos, China, Iran, Vietnam, Turkmenistan and Bhutan. Independent news media are either non-existent in these countries, or are constantly repressed by the authorities. Journalists there work in extremely difficult conditions, with no freedom and no security. A number of them are imprisoned in Burma, China and Iran.
Cuba is in 165th position, second from last. Twenty-six independent journalists were arrested in the spring of 2003 and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 14 to 27 years, making Cuba the world’s biggest prison for journalists. They were accused of writing articles for publication abroad that played into the hands of “imperialist interests.” Eritrea, in 162nd position, has the worst situation in Africa. Privately-owned news media have been banned there for the past two years and 14 journalists are being held in undisclosed locations.
To compile this ranking, Reporters Without Borders asked journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists to fill out a questionnaire evaluating respect for press freedom in a particular country. A total of 166 countries are included in the ranking (as against 139 last year). The other countries were left out because of a lack of reliable, well-supported data.
Wealth and press freedom don’t always go together
As in 2002, the ranking shows that a country’s respect for press freedom is not solely linked to its economic development. The top 50 include countries that are among the poorest in the world, such as Benin (29th position), Timor-Leste (30th) and Madagascar (46th).
Conversely, the 50 countries that respect press freedom least include such rich nations as Bahrain (117th) and Singapore (144th).
Special situation of the United States and Israel
The ranking distinguishes behaviour at home and abroad in the cases of the United States and Israel. They are ranked in 31st and 44th positions respectively as regards respect for freedom of expression on their own territory, but they fall to the 135th and 146th positions as regards behaviour beyond their borders.
The Israeli army’s repeated abuses against journalists in the occupied territories and the US army’s responsibility in the death of several reporters during the war in Iraq constitute unacceptable behaviour by two nations that never stop stressing their commitment to freedom of expression.
General deterioration in the Arab world
The war in Iraq played a major role in an increased crackdown on the press by the Arab regimes. Concerned about maintaining their image and facing public opinion largely opposed to the war, they stepped up control of the press and increased pressure on journalists, who are forced to use self-censorship.
Kuwait (102nd) replaced Lebanon (106th) as the Arab world’s leader as regards respect for freedom of expression because of cases of censorship in Lebanon, together with abusive judicial proceedings and an attack on the television station Futur TV. Saudi Arabia (156th), Syria (155th), Libya (153rd) and Oman (152nd) used all the means at their disposal to prevent the emergence of a free and independent press.
In Morocco (131st), the hopes pinned on Mohammed VI when he became king in July 1999 have been dashed. Independent newspapers are still subject to constant harassment from the authorities. Ali Lmrabet, the publisher and editor of two satirical weeklies, was sentenced in June 2003 to three years in prison for “insulting the person of the king” because of articles and cartoons touching on taboo subjects.
European Union gets good rankings, except Italy and Spain
Italy received a poor ranking (53rd) compared with the other European Union countries for the second year running. Silvio Berlusconi’s conflict of interests as head of government and owner of a media empire is still unresolved. Furthermore, a draft law to reform radio and TV broadcasting, tailored to Berlusconi’s interests, is likely to increase the threats to news diversity in Italy.
Spain’s relatively low ranking (42nd) is due to difficulties for journalists in the Basque country. The terrorist organisation ETA has stepped up its threats against the news media, promising to target journalists whose coverage does not match its view of the situation. Furthermore, the necessary fight against terrorism has affected press freedom, with the forced closure as a “preventive measure” of the Basque newspaper Egunkaria, whose senior staff are suspected of collaborating with ETA.
France is ranked as low as 26th because of its archaic defamation legislation, the increasingly frequent challenges to the principle of confidentiality of sources and the repeated abusive detention of journalists by police.
Former USSR still lags behind
The situation remains worrying in Russia (148th), Ukraine (132nd) and Belarus (151st). A truly independent press exists in Russia, but Russia’s poor ranking is justified by the censorship of anything to do with the war in Chechnya, several murders and the recent abduction of the Agence France-Presse correspondent in Ingushetia. Russia continues to be one of the world’s deadliest countries for journalists.
Press freedom is virtually non-existent in much of central Asia, especially Turkmenistan (158th) and Uzbekistan (154th). No criticism of the authorities is tolerated.
Several countries with a democratically-elected government and a free and independent press have poor rankings. This is most notably the case with Bangladesh (143rd), Colombia (147th) and Philippines (118th). Journalists in these countries are the victims of violence that comes not only from the state but also from political parties, criminal gangs or guerrilla groups. In other cases, such as Nepal (150th), the press is caught in the cross fire between security forces and rebels.
Such violence results in considerable self-censorship by the news media, which do not dare to broach such subjects as corruption, collusion between political leaders and organised crime, or sectarian clashes. At the same time, the authorities very often fail to respond to this violence with the appropriate measures, namely protection for journalists and the punishment of those responsible.
News is the victim of war in Africa
Wars and serious political crises have inevitably had an impact on press freedom in Africa. The three countries that have fallen most in the ranking in the past 12 months are Côte d’Ivoire (137th), Liberia (132nd) and Guinea-Bissau (118th). Local and foreign journalists were exposed to the violence of the warring parties in Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia, while the military closed down news media in Guinea-Bissau.