Press freedom in danger

Nineteen journalists have been killed and more than 160 imprisoned since January 2012. DW rounds up expert views on the situation around the globe in commemoration of World Press Freedom Day.

The upheaval in the Arab world has led to dramatic changes, but it hasn't necessarily made life easier for journalists. The degree of press freedom varies strongly from country to country, said Michael Rediske, on the board of Reporters without Borders Germany.

In Focus
World | 03.05.2012

Reporters without Borders releases an annual “Press Freedom Ranking.” The current list contains 179 countries. The authors surveyed academics/scientists/researchers, lawyers, and human rights activists, in addition to journalists, to rank each country.

The high expectations that came with the Arab Spring still haven't been met in some countries. Rediske thinks Egypt is a good example of this problem. “People had high hopes for Egypt, [but] it has moved down on our list because the military government has enacted new emergency laws and has once again limited press freedom,” he said.

The list also considers the danger journalists risk by working in these countries in its rankings.

“The Arab Spring sparked huge conflicts,” said Rediske. “Journalists have to report on scene, which is, of course, where they're most likely to be attacked by these governments.” Tunisia has become less dangerous since the Arab Spring, whereas the violence in Syria has made it as dangerous as Iraq was a few years ago. Subsequently, many journalists have been killed there.

Eritrea comes in last place

The countries with the least press freedom move to the very bottom of the list. Eritrea had the lowest ranking this year.

Michael Rediske from Reporters without Borders Germany says press freedom varies strongly from country to country

“Eritrea is absolutely the worst place for journalists,” said Pierre Ambroise, who covers Africa for Reporters without Borders. Eritrea's ranking does not surprise him, considering that the government abolished freedom of the press 10 years ago. “Today, journalists work for the state media and have to print what the Ministry of Information tells them to. Anyone who tries to defy the state lands in jail,” he said.

Reporters without Borders also found fault with Angola, despite its flourishing economy. The government exercises too much influence on the media.

Journalist and human rights activist Rafael Marques writes about Angola's limited press freedom on his blog www.makaangola.org. “Two of the most influential people in the Angolan regime are among the owners of the only private television broadcaster in Angola, TV Zimbo,” he wrote. Marques' Blog is one of this year's finalists for the Deutsche Welle Blog Awards (BOBs).

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Michael Rediske noted some positive news about the state of press freedom in Africa. “For the first time, we have two African countries in our list of the top 20 countries for press freedom, namely Namibia and the Cape Verde Islands,” he said. Their high rankings come from their political stability.

China sends the most journalists to prison

In Asia, China causes the most worry. According to Reporters without Borders, no other country in the world has imprisoned more journalists and bloggers.

Chinese censors are currently focusing most of their attention on the Internet. Their greatest annoyance has been a social media website similar to Twitter called “Weibo”. About 300 million Chinese have at least one Weibo account.

“The Internet and options like Weibo give people the chance to express themselves more than ever before in the history of China,” said blogger Jeremy Goldkorn, who lives in China.

A new law requires Weibo users to register with their real names. The legislation still hasn't gone into effect.

Goldkorn has seen regulation of Internet use grow stronger through censorship in China. Aside from the Weibo-law, censorship has limited itself to traditional methods, such as shutting down websites. When a power struggle was taking place within China's Communist Party, the government disabled the comment function for three days on social media websites similar to Twitter.

The problems stems from more than just one website or trying to control public opinion on politics. ”We're dealing with a tsunami of information that didn't exist before,” Goldkorn said.

If not censorship, then intimidation and violence

Government censorship was not always the root cause of this year's lowest rankings. Reporters without Borders found numerous examples of powerful third parties around the globe that silenced journalists.

Azerbaijan will host the Eurovision Song Contest and possibly loosen control of the press

A substantial multifaceted media landscape emerged in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. There are now about 170 private radio and more than 60 private television broadcasters. Nevertheless, Reporters without Borders complains that the Taliban and warlords restrict journalism through intimidation tactics.

Journalists in Latin America must also deal with intimidation, which can turn violent. Reporters without Borders blames the raging battles between rival drug cartels and the military for silencing journalists.

The latest example comes from Brazil. Four journalists have been murdered since the beginning of 2012. Décio Sá was the most recent victim. The 42 year old blogger wrote about corruption and organized crime.

Can a song contest change press freedom?

Azerbaijan will host the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time ever. Some hope that the increased media attention will loosen control of the press' voice. A large number of international journalists cover the annual music spectacle. More than 100 million people tune into the event every year.

Michael Klehm of the German Journalists Association told DW that the Eurovision Song Contest won't change Azerbaijan's relationship with the press. “The media might be able to report more freely for a short period of time," he said. "But after they're gone, Azerbaijan will go back to its old habits. I don't believe that it will have a lasting effect.”

Europe and Press Freedom

Europe has not been immune to restrictions on press freedom. Journalists in Belarus and Russia continue to struggle for their own right to report freely.

Alexander Lukaschenko's regime monitors the media in Belarus closely. President Viktor Yanukovich's influence has become so strong that large state broadcaster can barely report objectively/impartially.

Russia also limits news coverage on private channels. Many parts of the media belong to rich companies that have close ties to the Kremlin.

Klehm considers Europe's level of press freedom high in comparison to the rest of the world. Of course, there's always “room for improvement,” he said. Even in Germany, the plan to store telephone and Internet data long-term has journalists concerned. They're worried about the implications for protecting their sources.

Eight European countries earned the top rankings on the Reporters without Borders' press freedom list this year. They are Finland, Norway, Estonia, the Netherlands, Austria, Iceland, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. Germany is number 16.

Autor: Marco Müller/kms
Editor: Jessie Wingard