North Korea, Iran and Syria have been named among the top 10 worst countries for press freedom, according to an annual ranking by Freedom House.
Each year, the U.S.-based non-governmental organization issues a report on the state of global media freedom. The overall findings in its latest report were bleak.
“Just 14 percent of the world’s population lives in societies that enjoy vibrant coverage of public affairs, a legal environment that undergirds a free press and freedom from intrusion by the government or other political forces,” the report said.
Middle East / North Africa
“The level of media freedom in the Middle East and North Africa remained the worst in the world in 2012, and stasis or backsliding was noted in the vast majority of countries, with the exception of Yemen.”
The report added: “While two of the Arab Spring countries, Libya and Tunisia, largely retained their significant gains from the previous year, Egypt moved back into the Not Free category.”
Most of the 10 most serious violators of press freedom in the world have constitutions that pay tribute to the values of freedom of speech and information.
However, “these protections are often superseded by laws that criminalize press commentary that, according to these regimes, insults the political leadership, breeds ‘hate,’ supports ‘terrorism,’ or threatens national security,” the report claims.
“The absence of outright violence does not necessarily signify that a country enjoys a freer media landscape than a country where journalists are regularly murdered... In the world’s ten worst rated countries, independent media are either nonexistent or barely able to operate.”
Many believe that the internet and other forms of new media will be instruments of liberation for the oppressed.
However, most of the countries described still have relatively low internet penetration rates, and in every case, policies have been put in place to limit new media’s potential political impact.
In Iran, ranked seventh on the list, the assault on freedom of expression continues at an accelerated pace. A major trend of late has been book-banning.
Some 250 “subversive” titles were banned ahead of the 2012 Tehran International Book Fair, and one of the largest publishing houses in Iran had its operating license revoked in June last year.
The government directly controls all television and radio broadcasting. The authorities frequently issue ad hoc orders banning media coverage of specific topics and events.
Cooperation with Persian-language satellite news channels based abroad is banned.
“The government has also placed pressure on the family members of journalists living abroad, including BBC Persian employees, who have been harassed, questioned, and detained by the security and intelligence apparatus,” Freedom House claims.
“Numerous periodicals were closed for morality or security offenses in 2012.”
Iranian authorities have established laws and practices to restrict access to communication tools, persecute dissidents for their online activity, and strengthen the government’s vast censorship apparatus, according to the report.
“The first phase of a national intranet, aimed at disconnecting the population from the global Internet, was launched last September.”
Iran ranks second in the world for the number of jailed journalists, with 45 behind bars as of December 2012, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
In Syria, which was number nine on the Freedom House list, the civil war has made a bad media landscape even worse.
“Syrian authorities continue to forcibly restrict coverage of the unrest and misreport the uprising on state-run television stations,” the report said.
“Until rather recently,” President Bashar al-Assad “tried to control world perceptions by banning all but a few foreign journalists, though that policy has begun to change.”
At the same time, the regime’s loss of control in certain regions has meant less pervasive censorship.
Media outlets that previously did not cover political developments have become sources of genuine news for Syrians in parts of the country. There is now more open criticism of the regime.
Pro-opposition newspapers have also popped up, though they tend to circulate either underground or online.“Citizen journalists” continue to be critical in providing foreign outlets with video recordings of protests and atrocities.
According to the CPJ, 28 journalists were killed in Syria in 2012.
North Korea was ranked the worst country in the world for press freedom.
The one-party state owns the press in its entirety, and devotes considerable energy and resources to preventing North Koreans from hearing alternative interpretations of events.
“Though foreign journalists are sometimes allowed in the country, they are being monitored carefully by special minders,” Freedom House said.
North Korea has kept internet penetration low, and the state has come to recognize new media’s potential as yet another instrument of propaganda.
The country even maintains its own official YouTube and Twitter handles, and web access is available only to a nationwide intranet, the Kwangmyong, that does not link to foreign sites.
In Freedom House’s list, Turkmenistan was ranked second and Uzbekistan third, followed by Eritrea, Belarus and Cuba. Number eight was Equatorial Guinea, while Bahrain was ranked 10th.