Press Advocacy Group Cites Nations for Worsening Press Conditions

By Judy Aita
USINFO Staff Writer

New York - To mark World Press Freedom Day 2007, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) cites 10 nations where conditions for journalists have deteriorated significantly over the past five years.

World Press Freedom Day, which is observed on May 3 each year, serves as an occasion to inform the public of violations of the right to freedom of expression and as a reminder that many journalists brave death or prison to report the news accurately. 

Robert Mahoney, CPJ deputy director, regards the report on the so-called "top 10 backsliders" as "an alarm call for the world press to take a look at countries where press freedom is in regression."

At a press conference May 2, Mahoney said that publicizing "a very severe deterioration in press conditions in these countries” the organization seeks to focus attention on the records of their governments with the goal of stopping or perhaps reversing the downward trends.

The CPJ list includes countries like Morocco that once were considered press freedom leaders, and others like Cuba that have had poor records for years and are becoming more restrictive.  (See related article.)

CPJ's 2007 dishonor roll includes Ethiopia, Gambia, Russia, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Cuba, Pakistan, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Morocco and Thailand.

In 2006 CPJ drew attention to countries that exert the most severe press censorship, such as Burma and North Korea - both ruled by repressive dictatorships.  Mahoney said the difference between the 2006 and 2007 list is that the latter includes some countries with a vibrant press.

The behavior of all of these countries is deeply troubling but the rapid retreats in nations where journalists formerly have thrived demonstrate just how easily the fundamental rights to press freedom can be taken away, CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said in the report.

In determining press conditions, CPJ analyzed worldwide data from 2002 though 2007, looking at conditions in seven categories:  government censorship, judicial harassment, criminal libel prosecutions, journalist deaths, physical attacks on the press, journalist imprisonments and threats against the press.  Excluded were major areas of conflict such as Iraq and Somalia, which lack conventional governance and news-gathering operations.

The three African nations on the 2007 list have won praise at times for their transitions to democracy, but now are being cited for backsliding on press issues.  Journalists in Ethiopia, Gambia and the DRC are being jailed, attacked and censored - conditions that are far worse that only a few years ago, CPJ said.

Cuba and Ethiopia have become two of the world's leading jailers of journalists in the past five years, CPJ said.

Cuba has increased press restrictions through widespread imprisonments, expulsions and harassment.  In a massive 2003 crackdown, 29 journalists were imprisoned.  In 2005 Cuba expelled four foreign journalists for covering an opposition party meeting. When Fidel Castro fell ill in 2006, the government barred 10 journalists from entering the country. (See related article.)

In Ethiopia, the number of journalists imprisoned has risen from two to 18 and dozens have been forced into exile.  In 2006 alone, Ethiopian authorities banned eight newspapers, expelled two foreign journalists and blocked critical Web sites.  Only a handful of private newspapers continue to publish and all are under intense self-censorship, CPJ reported.

Joel Campagna, CPJ's senior Middle East program coordinator, said that "it is extremely important to call out countries where there is a margin of press freedom and work to preserve that.  That Morocco has slipped is a troubling sign for the region."

Escalating government attacks in Morocco and Egypt have coincided with press vitality, Campagna said.

In Egypt "the print press has become more assertive and outspoken, but with the greater assertiveness has been a push back by the government," Campagna said. Over 90 criminal cases were launched against the press in the last two and a half years, and the first blogger was imprisoned. (See related article.)

In Gambia 11 journalists have been jailed for extended periods in 2006.  In the past five years, editor Deyda Hydara was murdered and The Independent, a leading newspaper, was targeted by arsonists and closed by the government.  Criminal penalties were also instituted for defamation.

Censorship orders and restrictive legislation are being used in several nations, CPJ said.  In Thailand, the new military junta issued broad censorship orders for broadcast outlets.  In Russia, President Vladimir Putin signed a law equating critical coverage with "extremism."

Violent attacks against journalists are going unpunished in many of the countries.  In Pakistan, eight journalists have been killed in the last five years, but arrests and convictions have been won in only one case.  In Russia, 11 journalists have been murdered in the last five years but no case has been solved, CPJ said. (See related article.)

For more information on U.S. policies, see Freedom of the Press.