Freedom of the Press 2005

| Thu Apr. 28, 2005 5:13 PM EDT

The Freedom House has put out its latest annual report (pdf) on freedom of the press around the world. Upshot:

Improvements took place in countries where new democratic openings have been achieved or are burgeoning, such as in Ukraine and Lebanon. Several countries in the Middle East showed positive trends.

However, the overall level of press freedom worldwide-as measured by global average score-worsened, continuing a three-year downward trend according to the survey. Notable setbacks took place in Pakistan, Kenya, Mexico, Venezuela, and in the world's most powerful democracy, the United States.

Well, the "United States" bit will probably get a lot of attention, but hey, with prosecutors pressuring journalists to reveal sources and the Bush administration's penchant for paying off journalist/lackeys and pawning off its own propaganda segments as "news," that's what we get. But we knew all of that. Some of the other individual countries highlighted in the report are more interesting—in particular, I'll post the entries for Afghanistan and Iraq below the fold for those interested.

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Afghanistan:

Afghanistan's media continue to operate in a fragile setting, although some improvements were seen during the year, particularly in the legal environment for the press. Article 34 of the new constitution, passed in January 2004, provides for freedom of the press and of expression. An amended version of the 2002 press law, which was signed by President Hamid Karzai in April, prohibits censorship and recognizes the right of citizens to obtain information from the government. However, it retains broad restrictions on content that is "contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions and sects" and "matters leading to dishonoring and defaming individuals."

The legislation also establishes a government-appointed commission with the power to decide if journalists who contravene the law should face court prosecutions or fines. Journalists continue to be threatened or harassed by government ministers, the intelligence service, militias, and others in positions of power as a result of their reporting. Many practice self-censorship or avoid writing about sensitive issues such as Islam, national unity, or crimes committed by specific warlords. The two employees of the Kabul-based newspaper Aftab who were charged with blasphemy in 2003 fled the country and remain abroad, while the newspaper itself has not resumed publishing. Authorities in Herat temporarily interfered with the operations of an independent women's community radio station in June. In September, U.S. military personnel seized a BBC reporter from his house and took him to Bagram air base, where he was interrogated for 24 hours before being released with an apology.

Although registration requirements remain in place, authorities have granted more than 250 licenses to independent publications, and several dozen private radio stations and eight television stations are now broadcasting. National and local governments continue to own or control several dozen newspapers and almost all of the electronic media, and reporting at these news outlets is generally balanced. Nevertheless, a November report by the International Crisis Group noted that state-run media outlets covered President Karzai's campaign for the October presidential election more extensively than that of other candidates. Media diversity and freedom is markedly higher in Kabul and some warlords or political factions do not allow independent media in the areas under their control. However, pressures on journalists in Herat eased considerably following the ouster of Governor Ismael Khan in September. Access to the Internet and to international radio broadcasts, on which many Afghans rely for information, remains largely unrestricted. In the country's underdeveloped economic environment, the majority of media outlets remain dependent on the state, political parties, or international donors for financial support.

So not terrible, and seems to be improving. Meanwhile, in Iraq:

The historic transformation of Iraq's media continued in 2004, as Iraqis enjoyed unprecedented access to a wide diversity of media sources that emerged after Saddam Hussein's ouster from power. However, press freedom remained constrained by instability, escalating violence, and unanswered questions about the power and role of new institutions created to regulate the media….

On June 28, the interim Iraqi government assumed full governmental authority and began issuing new regulations and creating a separate body to regulate the media. In August, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi announced a new Higher Media Commission (HMC), which had responsibility for regulating print and broadcast media and imposing sanctions against violators. For several months, there was a lack of clarity about the HMC's relationship to the NCMC. Interim Iraqi government officials later clarified that the HMC would serve as a senior policy advisory group to the NCMC. In October, the HMC announced that it was preparing a professional code for journalists, which included provisions such as respecting the religious faith of the majority, refraining from agitating divisions in Iraqi society, and not showing support for terrorist actions. The HMC said that it would draft regulations and set punishments for violations. Because much of the structure and operating procedures for the interim Iraqi government remained in flux by the end of the year, it was unclear what impact the HMC and the NCMC would have on Iraqi media outlets' operations.

The ongoing instability and violence remains the biggest threat to press freedom, with Iraqi insurgent groups targeting attacks against media. In 2004, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 15 Iraqi and foreign journalists, as well as 16 media workers (drivers, bodyguards, and translators; all but one Iraqis), were deliberately killed by extremist groups; 5 journalists died while covering live combat; and 3 journalists and one media worker were killed near checkpoints by coalition forces due to mistaken identity. Many of the latter 9 deaths could likely have been avoided had more adequate safeguards (e.g. improved military communication regarding the presence of journalists in conflict areas) been in place. In addition, 22 journalists were abducted during the year by insurgent groups or for ransom by professional kidnappers. In addition, journalists were subject to physical harassment at the hands of Coalition forces. Three Iraqi employees of Reuters news agency who were detained in January later claimed to have been subjected to sexual abuse by U.S. soldiers. On numerous occasions, the interim Iraqi government and Coalition forces restricted the movement of journalists and barred them from certain areas. In August, Iraqi police ordered all journalists who were not embedded with Coalition and Iraqi forces to leave the city of Najaf. Numerous reporters ignored the order, and police rounded up 60 foreign and Iraqi journalists and brought them to police headquarters, where they were later released. In November, interim Prime Minister Allawi declared a state of emergency in Ramadi and Fallujah, which provided the government with broad powers to impose curfews and restrict movement. This state of emergency was later extended to the rest of the country.

The CPA and the interim Iraqi government threatened to ban numerous media outlets, and in some cases issued bans. In March, the CPA suspended Al-Hawza, the newspaper of Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, for allegedly falsely blaming the U.S. military for the deaths of Iraqi police recruits in a February attack. The closure of Al-Hawza was a contributing factor to clashes between Coalition forces and Al-Sadr's supporters throughout the spring and summer. CPA and interim Iraqi government officials also threatened two leading regional Arabic satellite television channels, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, with bans, accusing the stations of inciting violence and providing biased news coverage of events in Iraq. In August, Iraq's interim government banned Al-Jazeera from operating in Iraq for 30 days, a ban that was later made indefinite. Despite the formal ban, Iraqi officials continued to appear on the channel, and Al-Jazeera continued operations in Iraq by using freelance journalists.

Iraq currently has more than 120 daily and weekly publications, and dozens of new private television and radio channels emerged throughout the country. Although most are affiliated with particular religious or political groups, the first privately owned non-partisan television station, Al-Sharqiya, was launched in March 2004. Foreign satellite television, previously banned in all of Iraq under Saddam Hussein (except in the northern Kurdish regions since 1991), became increasingly available during 2004. While the independent press has grown tremendously, economic conditions have hindered the ability of independent publications to sustain themselves. Access to the Internet grew during the year, with many Internet cafes opening up in Iraqi cities.

No indication, though, of whether conditions are getting better or worse since the handover.

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