Thursday, February 13, 2014

Harassment of The Guardian causes UK drop in press freedom index rankings

The Guardian offices ... harassed over intelligence leaks.
Photo: Bethany Clarke/Greenslade Blog
From the Greenslade Blog and Reporters Without Borders

THE UNITED KINGDOM has slipped three places down the World Press Freedom Index rankings this year - to 33rd.

According to the global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in its report this week, this was due to the country "distinguishing itself by its harassment of The Guardian" following its publication of the NSA and GCHQ leaks by the whistleblower Edward Snowden.

That incident, and the White House administration's reaction to the Snowden affair and the jailing of Chelsea Manning over the Wikileaks revelations, also resulted in the United States falling by 13 places to 46th in the list.

RSF remarks: "The hunt for leaks and whistleblowers serves as a warning to those thinking of satisfying a public interest need for information about the imperial prerogatives assumed by the world's leading power."

Major declines in media freedom were recorded in Central African Republic and Guatemala but RSF also pointed to marked improvements in Ecuador, Bolivia and South Africa among the total of 180 countries.

The same trio of European countries – Finland, Netherlands and Norway – head the index again, while the last, and worst, three positions remain Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea.

In the Pacific region, New Zealand was 9th and Australia 28th. The highest placed Pacific Islands country was Samoa, ranked 40th, closely followed by Papua New Guinea at 44.

Other Pacific countries surveyed were Tonga (63), Timor-Leste (77) and Fiji (107).

At the bottom
Turkmenistan adopted a media law in January 2013 that proclaims pluralism and bans censorship but, according to RSF, "it is a complete fiction" because President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's totalitarian regime still controls all the local media.

Arbitrary arrests are common. RSF says independent journalists in Turkmenistan can only operate clandestinely, reporting for news media based outside the country. This is risky, as the journalists Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khadjiyev can testify.

In February last year they were finally released after completing seven-year jail terms in appalling conditions.

Eritrea is Africa's biggest prison for journalists with 28 journalists currently in detention. Seven of 11 journalists jailed in 2001 are reported to have died while in prison.

The president, Issayas Afeworki, has closed down all the privately-owned media and the state media are subject to such close surveillance that they have to conceal entire swathes of contemporary history such as the Arab spring.

Accessing reliable information is impossible in the absence of satellite and internet connections. But a few independent radio stations, such as Radio Erena, do manage to broadcast from abroad.

In North Korea, freedom of information is non-existent, as has been the case ever since RSF first started its index. RSF highlighted the media manipulation in December last year during the arrest and execution of Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of the president, Kim Jong-un.

Jang's appearance in films and photographs were eliminated, as if he had never existed. But his arrest, trial and execution received detailed coverage. RSF described it as "extraordinary" propaganda designed to be an "intimidatory message to the entire Korean population."

Conflicts, instability
The 2014 index illustrates the negative correlation between armed conflicts and freedom of information. RSF says: "In an unstable environment, the media become strategic goals or targets for groups or individuals trying to control news and information."

In Syria (177th) around 130 professional and citizen-journalists were killed between March 2011 to December 2013. They are being targeted by both the Assad government and extremist rebel militias.

In Africa, Mali (122nd) progress in the conflict in north of the country has stalled, preventing any real revival in media activity. The violent conflict in the Central African Republic saw it fall 43 places to 109th - the biggest fall in this year's index - after repeated attacks and threats against journalists.

In Egypt (159th), after President Morsi's ousting by the army led by Al-Sisi, there has been a witchhunt against journalists alleged to have offered support to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Even journalists who have done nothing more than report on the Brotherhood have ended up in jail, most often without charge, or on trumped-up charges of "spreading false news."

There have also been many examples of governments using (and abusing) the "fight against terrorism" in order to arrest journalists. In Turkey (154th), dozens of journalists have been detained on this pretext, above all those who cover the Kurdish issue.

Israel (96th) regained some of the places it lost in the previous index because of the impact on media freedom during the 2012 Pillar of Defence operation. But, says RSF, "the territorial integrity imperative often suppresses freedom of information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

By contrast, South Africa (42nd) improved by 11 places in a year marked by what RSF calls its "laudable legislative developments" which saw the president refuse to sign a law that would have threatened media freedom.

Source: Reporters Without Borders

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