May 3 marked the twentieth anniversary of UNESCO's World Press Freedom Day. A day to celebrate press freedom around the world. Or the lack of it. Reporters Without Borders has released its annual report on world press freedom in 2013, which documents overall trends and has a region-by-region breakdown of key issues and developments. This year already, nineteen journalists have been killed and 174 imprisoned, and 9 netizens and citizen journalists have been killed and 162 imprisoned.
The Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders "reflects the degree of freedom that journalists, news organizations and netizens enjoy in each country, and the efforts made by the authorities to respect and ensure respect for this freedom."
According to Reporters Without Borders, following the Arab uprisings and "other protest movements that prompted many rises and falls in last year’s index [the] ranking of most countries is no longer attributable to dramatic political developments. This year’s index is a better reflection of the attitudes and intentions of governments towards media freedom in the medium or long term."
Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg, and Andorra are ranked as the countries that most respect media freedom, while Eritrea, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Syria, and Somalia are the countries that least respect it.
According to Reporters Without Borders, with at "least 30 behind bars [Eritrea] is Africa’s biggest prison for journalists." Following a widespread government crackdown in 2001, there are no independent news outlets in Eritrea. Of the eleven journalists who were imprisoned in 2001, seven have already died in prison or killed themselves. The government, led by the Information Minister Ali Abdu, uses intimidation and imprisonment to maintain control information.
2. North Korea
The North Korean government exercises direct and total control over the media in the country, which is tasked with glorifying the state and its former leader Kim Il-sung. Although independent North Korean radio stations exist in South Korea, thousands "of North Koreans have been detained for listening to a foreign radio station, making phone calls abroad or publicly questioning the sole political party."
North Korea is also one of the hardest countries for foreign journalists to cover, with access and freedom of movement severely restricted.
Similar to North Korea, local media in Turkmenistan is "under total state control." According to Reporters Without Borders, journalists are required to "cover the president’s “achievements” and “good works,” radio and TV stations and newspapers are scolded when they fail to show enough fervour and deference towards him, and are subjected to arbitrary appointments and dismissals."
While the internet may offer some hope for change, access is severely restricted and "independent journalists have to operate clandestinely and risk arbitrary detention or even torture." Journalists Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khadzhiev, both held on fabricated charges, were only released earlier this year after seven years in prison.
While privately-owned media outlets have emerged in Syria, the state "has always maintained a stranglehold on news content," through web censorship, harassment and abuse of journalists, media blackouts on dissent, and the arrest and expulsion of foreign reporters.
According to Reporters Without Borders, of all the countries on the list, Syria is the one which saw "most attacks on freedom of information." It went on to say that reporters are being "targeted by all the parties to the conflict – the regular army and the various opposition factions – who are waging an information war."
Already this year four journalists have been killed in Somalia, adding to the eighteen killed last year. Journalists in the country operate under the constant threat of arbitrary arrest and detention, surviving, in the words of one Somali reporter, only by living in a "state of paranoia constantly assessing and reassessing your surroundings." Not only is the number of targeted assassinations is alarming, but some journalists have "ended up in jail even without publishing or airing a report."
As we reflect on the severe restrictions that journalists in the above countries face, we must also remain critical of the state of the media in countries that are so often held up as beacons of freedom. While obviously not on the same scale as what is happening in Eritrea or Somalia, things such as the hacking scandal in Britain and the arrest of journalists covering the Occupy movement in the U.S. should also give us pause for thought.