In its annual survey of press freedom around the world, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) once again ranked North Korea in last place of the 167 countries evaluated, closely preceded by Eritrea and Turkmenistan.
The World Press Freedom Index calls these countries "black holes for news," where privately-owned, independent media outlets simply do not exist. Journalists working for the state-owned media face severe restrictions.
"Journalists in these countries are little more than mouthpieces for government propaganda," the report says. "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."
However, Western democracies also performed quite badly in this year’s Index. The most significant change was in the United States, which fell more than 20 places. This downgrading is due in part to the imprisonment of the New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who spent 85 days in jail to protect her journalistic sources.
France also slipped down 10 notches in the Index to number 30. The report cites "court-ordered searches of media offices, interrogations of journalists, and the introduction of new press offenses" as reasons.
In many cases, oppression does not end with psychological threats. Reporting in Uzbekistan (156th) can be life-threatening. Take the case of Galima Bukharbaeva, a former correspondent for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
Bukharbaeva is one of four winners of the International Press Freedom Award 2005, for risking her life while covering the killing of hundreds of protesters by government troops in the city of Andijan in May. During the chaos, a bullet tore through her backpack, piercing her notebook and press pass.
This year’s award, given by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on Nov. 22, also goes to journalists from Zimbabwe, Brazil, and China who suffered beatings, threats and jail because of their work.
They include Beatrice Mtetwa, a media lawyer in Zimbabwe, where the law is used as a weapon against independent journalists. Despite being arrested and beaten because of her work, she continues at great personal risk to defend journalists, and has won acquittals for several journalists facing criminal charges.
Lúcio Flávio Pinto, publisher and editor of the bimonthly paper Jornal Pessoal, has courageously reported on drug trafficking, environmental devastation, and political and corporate corruption in a vast, remote region of Brazil’s Amazon. Physically assaulted and threatened with death, he also faces a constant barrage of civil and criminal lawsuits aimed at silencing him.
Shi Tao has been a freelance journalist for Internet publications and an editor for Dangdai Shang Bao, a Chinese business newspaper. His essays on political reform, published on Internet news sites outside the country, drew the ire of authorities and he is now serving a 10-year prison sentence for "leaking state secrets abroad."
"These journalists have been attacked in various ways by powerful people determined to hide their actions," said CPJ Executive Director Anne Cooper. "But in the face of grave dangers, they have shown extraordinary bravery, tenacity, and dedication in defending the free flow of vital information."
Overall, journalists face a very difficult situation worldwide. So far, RSF counts 51 killed and 107 imprisoned journalists for the year 2005. The most dangerous country continues to be Iraq, where at least 24 journalists and media assistants were killed this year.
The situation there is "the most deadly conflict for the media since World War II, because it proved more deadly for the media in a few months than during the entire Vietnam War," the group says.
The 2005 World Press Freedom Index refutes the argument used by some authoritarian leaders that democracy can take decades to establish itself. Nine states that gained independence within the last 15 years are found among the top 60 freest countries in the Index.
"When there is a real political will, however young and fragile the country is, respect for human rights and freedom of the press is possible without jeopardizing the regime," Lucie Morillon, RSF’s Washington representative, told IPS.
For example, Slovenia ranks ninth, Namibia 27th, and East Timor 58th.
The Index also denies a link between economic development and democracy. "Poverty cannot be anymore an excuse for human rights violation," Morillon stressed. "A country such as Benin, ranked 25th ahead of the U.S. and France shows that a country can respect freedom of the press even though it has very low per capita GDP."
Very poor countries such as Mali (37), Mozambique (49), and Niger (57) also rank within the top 60.
The World Press Index debuted in 2002. RSF’s partner organizations, as well as its network of 130 correspondents, researchers, and human rights activists, are asked to answer 50 questions which are used to assess the status of press freedom in each country. Some countries have to be excluded of the Index due to a lack of information.