Ongoing political turmoil produced uneven conditions for press freedom in the Middle East in 2012, with Tunisia and Libya largely retaining their gains from 2011 even as Egypt slid backward into the Not Free category. The region as a whole experienced a net decline for the year, in keeping with a broader global pattern in which the percentage of people worldwide who enjoy a free media environment fell to its lowest point in more than a decade. Among the more disturbing developments in 2012 were dramatic declines for Mali, significant deterioration in Greece, and a further tightening of controls on press freedom in Latin America, punctuated by the decline of two countries, Ecuador and Paraguay, from Partly Free to Not Free status.
These were the most significant findings of Freedom of the Press 2013: A Global Survey of Media Independence, the latest edition of an annual index published by Freedom House since 1980. While there were positive developments in Burma, the Caucasus, parts of West Africa, and elsewhere, the dominant trends were reflected in setbacks in a range of political settings. Reasons for decline included the continued, increasingly sophisticated repression of independent journalism and new media by authoritarian regimes; the ripple effects of the European economic crisis and longer-term challenges to the financial sustainability of print media; and ongoing threats from nonstate actors such as radical Islamists and organized crime groups.
The trend of overall decline occurred, paradoxically, in a context of increasingly diverse news sources and ever-expanding means of political communication. The growth of these new media has triggered a repressive backlash by authoritarian regimes that have carefully controlled television and other mass media and are now alert to the dangers of unfettered political commentary online. Influential powers—such as China, Russia, Iran, and Venezuela—have long resorted to a variety of techniques to maintain a tight grip on the media, detaining some press critics, closing down or otherwise censoring media outlets and blogs, and bringing libel or defamation suits against journalists. Russia, which adopted additional restrictions on internet content in 2012, set a negative tone for the rest of Eurasia, where conditions remained largely grim. In China, the installation of a new Communist Party leadership did not produce any immediate relaxation of constraints on either traditional media or the internet. In fact, the Chinese regime, which boasts the world’s most intricate and elaborate system of media repression, stepped up its drive to limit both old and new sources of information through arrests and censorship.
As a result of declines in both authoritarian and democratic settings over the past several years, the proportion of the global population that enjoys a Free press has fallen to its lowest level in over a decade. The report found that less than 14 percent of the world’s people—or roughly one in six—live in countries where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures. Moreover, in the most recent five-year period, significant country declines have far outnumbered gains, suggesting that attempts to restrict press freedom are widespread and challenges to expanding media diversity and access to information remain considerable.
There were some promising developments during the year to partially offset these worrisome trends. Positive movement occurred in a number of key countries in Asia (Afghanistan and Burma), Eurasia (Armenia and Georgia), and sub-Saharan Africa (Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritania, Senegal, and Zimbabwe), as well as in Yemen. Many advances occurred in the context of new governments that either rolled back restrictive legal and regulatory provisions or allowed greater space for vibrant and critical media to operate. Particularly noteworthy was the continued dramatic opening in Burma, which registered the survey’s largest numerical improvement of the year due to people’s increased ability to access information and the release of imprisoned bloggers and video journalists, among other factors.
Of the 197 countries and territories assessed during 2012, a total of 63 (32 percent) were rated Free, 70 (36 percent) were rated Partly Free, and 64 (32 percent) were rated Not Free. This balance marks a shift toward the Not Free category compared with the edition covering 2011, which featured 66 Free, 72 Partly Free, and 59 Not Free countries and territories.
The analysis found that less than 14 percent of the world’s inhabitants lived in countries with a Free press, while 43 percent had a Partly Free press and 43 percent lived in Not Free environments. The population figures are significantly affected by two countries—China, with a Not Free status, and India, with a Partly Free status—that together account for over a third of the world’s nearly seven billion people. The percentage of those enjoying Free media in 2012 declined by another half point to the lowest level since 1996, when Freedom House began incorporating population data into the findings of the survey. Meanwhile, the share living in Not Free countries jumped by 2.5 percentage points, reflecting the move by populous states such as Egypt and Thailand back into that category.
● Freedom of the Press 2013 Infograph | Freedom House (PDF)
● Freedom of the Press 2013 Map | Freedom House (PDF)
● Freedom of the Press 2013 Charts & Graphs | Freedom House (PDF)
● World Press Freedom Index 2013 Map | Reporters Without Borders (PDF)