World Press Censored by 'Stealth'(2)

By Fitzgerald, Mark | Editor & Publisher, May 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

World Press Censored by 'Stealth'(2)


Fitzgerald, Mark, Editor & Publisher


Freedom House survey reveals subtle attacks, overall decline in press freedom

Press freedom around the world is on the decline, according to a survey of 186 nations by Freedom House.

The survey found press freedom was reduced to some degree in 53 nations last year and improved in just 20.

"The degree of press freedom in the world actually declined in 1998 to a degree we have not seen for five years. It's worrying because it suggests things are not necessarily going in the right directions," says Leonard R. Sussman, who coordinated the survey.

Not only is press freedom declining, the methods used to restrict it are also changing, Freedom House says. "The muzzling of journalists was increasingly accomplished by more subtle, legalistic methods than through violence or outright repression," Sussman writes in the introduction to the survey, "News of the Century: Press Freedom 1999."

"While physical attacks, even murder and arrest of journalists have not ended, regimes increasingly use subtle legislation such as "insult" laws to restrict criticism. The trend suggests a form of censorship by stealth. The use of innocuous-sounding laws to restrict reporting and inspire self-censorship," Sussman adds.

Nearly 30% of the countries surveyed adopted new measures in 1998 to restrict or suppress reporting or political dissent, Freedom House found. "That is disturbing at a time when more democracies exist than ever," Sussman says.

This is the 21st annual survey of the state of press freedom conducted by Freedom House, a Washington, D.C., and New York City-based organization that monitors political and civil rights worldwide. Freedom House comes up with a country's "score" by looking at its press laws and how they are enforced, the "degree of economic influence on journalistic content," and actual cases of abuses against the press, ranging from harassment to violence and murder.

According to the organization, 68 countries, or 36% of the world's nations, have a press that is free; 52 countries, or 28%, partly free; and 66 countries, or 36%, not free.

Freedom House says 1.2 billion people live in nations with a free press; 2.4 billion where the press is partly free; and another 2.4 billion where it is not free. Freedom House says 1998 saw "major declines" in press freedom in two African countries, Namibia and Ghana, that conducted wide-spread crackdowns on the press last year; in Peru, where President Alberto Fujimori continued an anti-press drive begun in 1992; in Jordan, which adopted a harsh press law forbidding coverage of some 14 topics; and in Samao, where the government has been pressuring the remaining media it does not already own.

The departure last year of authoritarian leaders in two countries, Nigeria and Indonesia, accounted for "major improvements" in press freedom there, Freedom House says. Two Asian countries, Mongolia and Thailand, also showed major improvements as did two European countries, Slovakia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, both of which are still rated only "partly free."

The following are highlights of the survey grouped by region with country scored F (free), PF (partly free), or NF (not free):

AFRICA

The continent is home to 30 of the 66 countries worldwide that Freedom House ranks as not free. Four countries with slight improvements and one major improvement are far outnumbered by 18 slight declines and two major declines:

Algeria (PF): Islamist extremists and the government threaten and attack journalists. The government uses its monopoly on printing to pressure newspapers.

Cameroon (NF): A climate of fear prevails as the government makes wide use of "insult" laws to arrest journalists.

Ghana (NF): A still-vigorous private press is a frequent target of crackdowns and libel suits by the government, which legally circumvents the constitutional guarantee of media freedom. …

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