Violence, intimidation and polarization still obstruct reporting in Americas says the 2013 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index which was released in anticipation of the World Press Freedom Day, May 3 (*). The report states that the ranking of most countries is no longer attributable to dramatic political developments and this year’s index is a better reflection of the attitudes and intentions of governments towards media freedom in the medium or long term.
The same three European countries that headed the index last year hold the top three positions again this year: Finland, Netherlands and Norway.
Although many criteria are considered, ranging from legislation to violence against journalists, democratic countries occupy the top of the index while dictatorial countries occupy the last three positions.
“The Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders does not take direct account of the kind of political system but it is clear that democracies provide better protection for the freedom to produce and circulate accurate news and information than countries where human rights are flouted,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said.
“In dictatorships, news providers and their families are exposed to ruthless reprisals, while in democracies news providers have to cope with the media’s economic crises and conflicts of interest. While their situation is not always comparable, we should pay tribute to all those who resist pressure whether it is aggressively focused or diffuse.”
Coinciding with the release of its 2013 Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders is for the first time publishing an annual global “indicator” of worldwide media freedom. This new analytic tool measures the overall level of freedom of information in the world and the performance of the world’s governments in their entirety as regards this key freedom.
In view of the emergence of new technologies and the interdependence of governments and peoples, the freedom to produce and circulate news and information needs to be evaluated at the planetary as well as national level. Today, in 2013, the media freedom “indicator” stands at 3395, a point of reference for the years to come.
The indicator can also be broken down by region and, by means of weighting based on the population of each region, can be used to produce a score from zero to 100 in which zero represents total respect for media freedom. This produces a score of 17.5 for Europe, 30.0 for the Americas, 34.3 for Africa, 42.2 for Asia-Pacific and 45.3 for Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Despite the Arab springs, the Middle East and North Africa region comes last with 48.5.
The high number of journalists and citizens killed in the course of their work in 2012 (the deadliest year ever registered by Reporters Without Borders in its annual roundup), naturally had an a significant impact on the ranking of the countries where these murders took place, above all Somalia (175th, -11), Syria (176th, 0), Mexico (153rd, -4) and Pakistan (159th, -8).
In the case of the Americas just as the emergence of major protest movements (and ensuing crackdowns) had a big impact on the rankings of certain countries in 2011, so a decline in the protests has logically also had an impact a year later.
Chile, for example climbed 20 places to 60th in the index after the previous year’s student protests abated in 2012. Crackdowns were concentrated in the Aysén region, which saw big protests in the first quarter. But Chile’s improvement must be put in perspective. Its media landscape is skewed, community broadcast media are criminalized, especially in the Mapuche region, and journalists have run into difficulties when trying to investigate the 1973-90 military dictatorship.
For similar reasons, the United States was up 15 places to 32nd, recovering a ranking more appropriate to the “country of the First Amendment.” Its previous year’s fall was due to the fact that the crackdown on the Occupy Wall Street movement did not spare reporters in the field.
Canada, on the other hand, fell 10 positions to 20th, losing its status as the western hemisphere’s leader to Jamaica (13th).
This was due to obstruction of journalists during the so-called “Maple Spring” student movement and to continuing threats to the confidentiality of journalists’ sources and Internet users’ personal data, in particular, from the C-30 bill on cyber-crime.
The clearest new trends are to be seen in the south. Brazil fell again, this time 9 places to 108th, after falling 41 places in 2011. Its media landscape is also badly distorted. Heavily dependent on the political authorities at the state level, the regional media are exposed to attacks, physical violence against their personnel, and court censorship orders, which also target the blogosphere. These problems were exacerbated by violence during the campaign for the October 2012 municipal elections.
Paraguay fell 11 places to 91st following President Fernando Lugo’s June 2012 removal in an “institutional coup d’état,” which had an almost immediate impact on the news media.
A full-blown purge of employees in state-owned media created by the Lugo administration was accompanied by frequent program censorship. The few community radio stations with broadcast frequencies were also scared of losing them.
Despite a high level of physical violence against journalists, Peru rose 10 places to 105th, now topping Brazil, itself one place above Bolivia (109th), where several media were the targets of spectacular arson or dynamite attacks and both national and local polarization are having an impact.
Ecuador dropped 15 places to 119th after a year of extreme tension between the government and leading privately-owned media. This left it two places below Venezuela, where several media were closed arbitrarily, a journalist was killed and more than 170 cases of violence were reported in a “media war” climate.
Although on a less dramatic scale, polarization is becoming a concern in Argentina, which slipped a few places to 54th amid growing tension between the government and certain privately-owned media, above all the Clarín group, which is resisting full implementation of the 2009 Ley de Medios, a law regulating the broadcast media.
On the other bank of the River Plate, Uruguay continued its climb, this time to 27th position, within 10 places of Costa Rica, still Latin America’s leader at 18th.
There has been little change in the marked contrasts that were seen in Central America in 2011. A lack of pluralism, intermittent tension with the political authorities, harassment and self-censorship are the main reasons for the scant change in Nicaragua (78th), Guatemala (95th) and Panama (111th), where attacks on journalists tripled in the space of a year, local unions said.
On the other hand, El Salvador owes its enviable 38th place to government efforts to combat violence crime, even if journalists and media often complain about the lack of access to state-held information. The Dominican Republic rose 15 places to 80th because of a decline in violence against journalists and legal proceedings that threaten freedom of information. But it is still far behind its neighbour Haiti (49th), where the situation is still largely unchanged although some journalists have accused President Michel Martelly of hostility towards them.
Political tension and judicial harassment account for the ranking of other countries in the Guyana and Caribbean. Trinidad and Tobago (44th) still has not stopped its illegal monitoring of journalists’ phone calls and attempts to identify their sources, although it promised to stop in 2010.
In Surinam (down nine places to 31th), the often stormy relations between President Desi Bouterse and many journalists are unlikely to improve after the passage of an amnesty law for the murders of around 15 government opponents, including five journalists, three decades ago when Bouterse was Surinam’s dictator. He returned to power through the polls in 2010.
The seven-member Organization of East Caribbean States fell eight places to 34th because of often direct pressure from the political authorities on news media and the failure to move ahead with the decriminalization of defamation. Similar pressure was reported in Guyana (69th) whose ranking continues to suffer from the state’s monopoly of radio broadcasting.
In the bottom third, Honduras was 127th because two journalists were killed in direct connection with their work and because the status quo imposed by the June 2009 coup remains unchanged. There has never been any let-up in the persecution of opposition media and community radio stations, or in the criminalization of human rights activists and grassroots movements that provide information about such sensitive issues as land disputes, police abuses and minority rights.
Although hopes have been raised by the latest negotiations between the government and FARC guerrillas, Colombia (129th) still has its paramilitaries-turned-drug traffickers, who are the enemies of all those involved in the provision of news and information. Another journalist was killed in 2012 although there was a slight decrease in the number of physical attacks.
With six journalists killed, Mexico (153rd) has maintained its status as the hemisphere’s most dangerous country for the media. Violence and censorship were particularly noticeable during the controversial July 2012 elections, which restored the presidency to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
Cuba, the hemisphere’s only country to tolerate no independent media (or with few exceptions), got the region’s lowest ranking – 171st. The past year has seen a renewed crackdown on dissent and the island now has two journalists in prison, one of them a state media employee.