By Brian Whitaker
Following historic gains for media freedom in 2011 as a result of the Arab Spring, Tunisia is the only Arab country continuing to make progress, according to the latest annual report from Freedom House.
The report, which covers 199 countries worldwide, says global press freedom declined in 2014 to its lowest point in more than 10 years. The rate of decline also accelerated drastically, with the global average score suffering its largest one-year drop in a decade.
Freedom House attributes the steepest declines to two factors: the introduction of more restrictive media laws – often on national security grounds – and the difficulty faced by journalists to "physically access and report freely from a given country, including protest sites and conflict areas".
Worldwide, Norway and Sweden have the highest rankings, while North Korea has the lowest. Sixty-three countries are listed in the "free" media category, 71 "partly free" and 65 "not free". Countries are scored according to the legal, political and economic environment in which the media operates, and the methodology is explained here.
Among the 22 Arab League members, five rank as "partly free" and 17 as "not free".
Tunisia, the report says, registered the best score of any Arab country in over a decade, although it remained "partly free" and only just scraped into the top half of the global league table.
Egypt and Libya, despite dramatic improvements in 2011, have continued to slip back, though media freedom in Libya is still better than it was under Gadafy. Over the period 2010-2014, increasingly repressive Bahrain has seen the biggest net decline.
Egypt’s score is its worst in 11 years, "marking not only the reversal of gains it made following the ouster of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, but also a regression toward the most repressive years of the Mubarak era". (The Sisi regime, incidentally, is planning further restrictions with its proposed National Media Authority.)
Some country-by-country details:
Algeria: Algeria's score and ranking "declined from 'partly free' to 'not free' due to restrictions imposed on the media during the 2014 presidential election. A January law placed content limitations on privately owned television channels, and government agencies withdrew advertising from media outlets that covered opposition parties. Foreign journalists were denied entry visas, had their visas restricted, or faced obstacles to access on the ground."
Bahrain: "The media in Bahrain continued to suffer from self-censorship and persecution, and citizen journalists who dared to report on ongoing protests through social media increasingly faced government reprisals.
Egypt: "Egypt’s score declined ... due to arrests of journalists and a number of deeply flawed court cases that resulted in harsh punishments for journalists and media workers. The hostile environment has led to an increase in self-censorship and a drop in media diversity, with many outlets becoming ardent supporters of the regime ...
"A court sentenced three al-Jazeera journalists to seven or more years in prison on charges of conspiring with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood to publish false news. The convictions followed a farcical trial in which prosecutors presented no credible evidence. While all three were freed or released on bail in early 2015, at least nine journalists remain in jail on terrorism charges or for covering the Brotherhood."
Iraq: "Iraq’s score declined ... due to an increase in censorship regarding coverage of [ISIS] and Iraqi security forces, including internet blackouts in the summer of 2014. The perilous security environment also made it more difficult and dangerous to report from large parts of the country."
Lebanon: The war in neighbouring Syria also put pressure on Lebanon, whose score hit a five-year low in 2014. There was a marked increase in libel cases: "Penalties included jail time and exorbitant fines, and many publications faced multiple suits from the same aggrieved party. Moreover, rulings from Lebanon’s Court of Publications during the year indicated a reflexive bias against the media and political motives behind many cases."
Libya: "Libya’s score declined ... due to the continued deterioration of the security environment, which denied journalists access to many areas. Media workers were vulnerable to attacks, abductions, and assassinations, and they also faced prosecution for defamation and other criminal offenses. Media outlets came under acute pressure to adhere to the views of the dominant militia groups in their area, as the civil war exacerbated political polarisation."
Palestine: The score for the West Bank and Gaza Strip declined slightly as a result of the war in Gaza: "Not only were members of the media killed and injured ... but both Israeli and Palestinian authorities restricted journalists’ movement in Gaza and the West Bank."
Qatar: "Qatar passed a new cybercrime law that included onerous penalties for 'false news' and defamation, though there are hopes that a new Open Data Policy will improve transparency and access to government sources.
Saudi Arabia: "Saudi Arabia’s autocratic regime bolstered existing media restrictions with the passage of harsh anti-terrorism legislation and increased arrests of critics."
Tunisia: "Tunisia’s score improved ... due to the ratification of the 2014 constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press, as well as incremental decreases in editorial pressure and attacks on journalists."
UAE: "The United Arab Emirates remained one of the most repressive media environments in the region, belying its image as a cosmopolitan oasis among conservative authoritarian regimes."
Yemen: "Both government and Houthi rebel forces targeted journalists, and the media faced greater pressure to serve political interests."
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 29 April 2015