Washington (CNSNews.com) – Despite burgeoning information technologies including the Internet and digital wireless communications devices, more than 40 percent of the global population lives under regimes that do not allow freedom of the press.
In fact, a majority of people live in countries that either do not have a free press or have an only partially free press--and the situation is getting worse, according to a study by Freedom House, an organization that promotes democracy around the world.
The new report, “Freedom of the Press 2009, Further Declines in Global Media Independence,” was released Friday at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
Many of the countries that have held consistently “worse” scores in the study and over the last several years include Iran, Cuba, Russia and Venezuela – all countries with which President Barack Obama has sought to improve country-to-country relations.
But democracies such as Mexico, Italy, and Israel were also cited in the report for restrictions on the press, as each country is ranked as having a “partially-free” press.
The study concluded that the “worst of the worst” countries were Burma, Cuba, Eritrea, Libya, North Korea and Turkmenistan.
According to the report, there are 70 countries with a “free” press, about 36 percent; 61 countries (or 31 percent) were ranked “partly free;” and 64 countries, 33 percent, were “not free.”
The study, which looked at 195 countries or territories, reached its conclusions by measuring the legal environment that the media operate in, the political influence over the media (which could include violence for content) and economic pressures.
Despite the finding that 70 countries have a “free” press, the study found that only 17 percent of the world’s population – not taking country into account -- had a “free” press. Meanwhile, 41 percent of people in the world have a “partly free” press and 42 percent have a “not free” press.
Under this measurement, Iraq was ranked as “not free,” because violence continues to serve as a chilling effect for some reporters, but the study offered some praise for Iraq when compared to other Middle Eastern countries.
“Iraq, actually we noted, was the only country in the Middle East this year that showed a numerical improvement, and this was primarily due to an improved security situation that made it easier for both foreign and local journalists to operate effectively and cover the news,” Freedom House Managing Editor Karin Karlekar told CNSNews.com.
“There was also a law passed by the Kurdistan regional parliament, which gave increased protections to press freedom,” she said. “Iraq was sort of a bright spot in the Middle East this year.”
The report says that the Internet and new media have not produced the freedom-breakthrough in oppressive countries that had been predicted.
“Despite hope in recent years that the impact of the Internet and other forms of new media would lead to openings in the media environment, the survey found that in 2008, most scores in the group remained stagnant,” the report said.
Specifically identifying Communist China and authoritarian Iran, the report says, “This year’s findings show that governments are now using traditional means of repression – including lawsuits, imprisonment, and other forms of harassment – to clamp down on this novel means of disseminating information.”
On Iran, Obama said during the presidential campaign he would have talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without pre-conditions. After coming into office, Obama delivered a Persian New Year’s address to Iran and offered “the promise of a new beginning” between the two countries.
Three democracies – two countries and one territory – dropped from the ranking of “free” in the 2008 report to “not free” in the 2009 report. Italy slipped because of “free speech limited by the courts and libel laws, increased intimidation of journalists by organized crime and far-right groups, and concerns over concentration of media ownership,” the report said.
While the Middle East has had the world’s lowest press freedom in past Freedom House studies, Israel has typically ranked “free.” Now, however, Israel has slipped to “partly free” because of “official attempts to influence coverage during the Gaza conflict.” Israel’s enemies shared the blame in the report that cited “both Hamas and Fatah intimidating journalists.”
The third to drop from “free” to “partly free” is Hong Kong, a territory of China, but the Chinese government is expanding its influence.
Restrictions became tighter on media in Communist China, the report says.
“There was a promising burst of relative openness in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in May, complemented by regulations allowing freer movement for foreign journalists and assurances of complete media freedom during the Olympics,” the report said.
“However, the authorities on the whole tightened the reins on both domestic journalists and Internet portals, while employing more sophisticated techniques to manipulate online content and blogging access to Tibetan areas. Journalists who did not adhere to the party dictates continued to be harassed, fired, or jailed,” the report added.
The report cited Russia’s “consistent inability of the pliant judiciary to protect journalists; increased self-censorship by journalists in an effort to prevent harassment, closure of media outlets, and even murder; and the frequent targeting of independent outlets by regulators.”
The report continued: “State control or influence over almost all media outlets remains a serious concern, particularly as it affects the political landscape and Russia’s ability to make informed electoral decisions.”
Obama has said he wants to “reset and reboot” the United States’ relationship with Russia because those ties apparently have been strained in recent years.
Referring to Latin American countries, the report says, “The only two countries in the region rated Not Free are Cuba, which has one of the most repressive media environments worldwide, and Venezuela, where the government of President Hugo Chavez continued its efforts to control the press.”
Obama lifted travel restrictions on Cuba and has signaled he wants to be more engaged with the Communist country.
Further, Obama was roundly criticized for shaking hands and being cordial with socialist Hugo Chavez, who has used anti-American rhetoric. Obama dismissed the criticism.
“Venezuela is a country whose defense budget is probably 1/600th of the United States. They own Citgo," Obama said on April 19. “It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States.”