Recent figures released from a Freedom House survey investigating the freedom of the press and its journalists around the globe in 196 countries for 2010, indicate vast numbers decreasing in freedom of speech, information and the means by which we communicate and disseminate news. 68 nations (35 per cent) were rated free, 65 (33 per cent) were rated partly free and 63 (32 per cent) were rated not free. (http://freedomhouse.org/). This is a decrease in the number of countries from the previous Freedom House survey taken in 2009 for 2008 in free countries. In 2008, 70 (36 per cent) nations were in the free zone, 61 (31 per cent) were scored at partly free which signifies another decrease for 2010, with the number of not free rated countries increasing in 2010 from 64 (33 per cent).http://freedomhouse.org/). Although, statistically these do not appear to be extremely concerning, the real picture delves a lot deeper. This academic paper will investigate the reasons behind why these terrible figures exist in what should be conceived as a ‘contradiction of communications in the age of modernity’ (Barbrook 1995) especially with the continued developments of technological new media systems. There will be certain continental regions and sub-regions examined in depth and context, with a main focus on the Middle East and Africa.
Freedom of information and freedom to express opinion is a basic human right meaning journalists are human rights defenders, (http://iomdi.posterous.com) and should be on the increase presently, due to the ever increasing liberalisation globally through revolution and protest over the past century. However recent figures released from Freedom House merely echo previous research findings in illustrating gradual declines globally. The survey conducted by Freedom House, assesses across platforms of print, broadcast and internet in 196 countries and measures the independence of national media in three wide ranging categories concerning the legal environment, policies and other political influences and disturbances on reporting including access to and flow of content; and economic considerations of news (Karlekar & Cook 2009). Whilst some regions do report figures of substantiated promise and freedom improvements such as sub-Saharan African nations Kenya, Liberia, Senegal; and the former Soviet Union’s nations which had previously been some of the worst offenders and culprits such as Georgia, Moldova and Kyrgyzstan, with all undergoing regulatory media reforms (http://www.freedomhouse.org/)
The global picture may only suggest slight percentage decreases in figures since the last global survey in 2009 covering 2008, but it is a worryingly constant decrease overall for the last decade. It is argued how journalists and the media world having a free status to operate in communicating information is absolutely imperative and essential for democratic stability to be achieved and sustained; and how their influence can go a long way in highlighting the oppression of authoritarian regimes and show the desperate suffering of its people striving for long term safety and support from which a potential revolution could give a particular nation. These autocracies have also tried to increase and exert more control over information dissemination by blocking internet sites and even trying to seize power over satellite broadcasting and mobile phone technologies, according to the latest findings. Of course with these actions combating previous encouraging trends in growth in not free and partly free countries, there is no surprise the global picture still struggles to turn itself around.
However the recent upheavals and political unsettlement in two of the most strictly controlled sub-regions of the Middle East and Africa which followed in civil war outbreak in countries whose freedom rankings declined to not free such as in Egypt where President Mubarak has been overthrown; Colonel Gaddafi in Libya barely clinging on to power; Bahrain falling under martial law; among other conflict zones in Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen. There have been major crackdowns on the freedom of news outlets communicating independent content, with only news been disseminated to that suiting and building up the prestige of the person in power and their ‘government’.
The Ivory Coast is being strongly urged by the CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists) to ‘end the political persecution of journalists’ after removing former President Laurent Gbagbo. This comes after more civil war outbreak had finally proved successful in aspiring for a revolution of freedom in the West-African country. There are fears of intimidation and retribution which will be sought on news organisations that were pro-Gbagbo, and to solve the mystery of journalist Guy-Andre Kieffer who disappeared in 2004 kidnapped in the capital Abidjan, after investigating corruption and scandal within the cocoa industry (http://ifex.org/cote_divoire/).
With these factors at play, it should also be duly noted that with these deteriorations in freedom of speech and information likely to only become as feared much worse, and the invention of interpretation and abuse of libel laws in these nations further adding heavier constraint to objective journalistic reporting, the violence, hatred and attacks on journalists are becoming overwhelmingly more frequent leading to increased numbers of fatalities on professional reporters who are simply just carrying out their occupation. This fact combined with the impunity in the punishments handed out for such crimes and dismissal and refusal for regimes or non-state actors to take responsibility is only leading to more professional investigative journalists being unable to work resulting in growing numbers of self-censorship.
Areas where journalists have become very susceptible to attacks and physical harassment are the Americas, and especially Mexico. With a higher level of power struggles over the news agenda, growing cases of impunities and continued cartel drug-trafficking problems, this country declined from partly free to not free in the latest survey research mechanism.
Meanwhile Brazil and Peru, which are both partly free nations, provide us with more chilling incidents of journalist killings after two were gunned down, one in each country, on the World Press Freedom day 3rd May. Both were believed to cover stories of a sensitive political nature, including organised crime and some stories could sometimes be perceived as critical against these figureheads, and this news broke after repeated threats on their lives were issued. A recent report by Peru’s National Journalists’ says it has already registered 82 acts of violence or intimidation against the country’s journalists in 2011 (http://ifex.org/peru/). This provides yet furthermore evidence of the implications involved in journalists and their sources, in the torturous underworld of reporting leading to imprisonment, terrifying death threats, bombings, kidnap and rape and arson against families and relatives and their homes. These are two nations which are still considered to be partly free, so it really does put greater emphasis and contextualises the desolate state of repressive media systems in not free nations, which are currently gradually growing, as journalists act as nothing more than mouthpieces for their supposed government (Karlekar & Cook 2009).
Freedom House recent survey statistics may seem to be a surprise globally in a period of time which is greatly remarked upon as the ‘Information Age’, as communications technology develops and thrives perhaps to a more advanced magnitude than could have been previously expected and at such an unbelievably fast rate in the last 20 years or so. New media systems such as satellite television, internet newspapers, increased access and flow of blogging and social networking sites such as Twitter, have all emerged in providing that openness and contact with the rest of the world in seconds which in some countries was simply not possible amid tights and restrictive controls. Despite seemingly offering unlimited access to unlimited media content and seeing slight improvements in 2007 for the Middle East and North Africa regions, simultaneously countries in the same regions combined with Asia and the former Soviet nations are “…employing or expanding methods of control over these potentially disruptive media. While crude blocking or filtering of particular websites remains common, some authoritarian states have also produced or financed pro-government propaganda designed specifically for these new formats”, (Karlekar & Cook 2009: 4) thusly counteracting effectively the purpose of the internet in sourcing a ’broadened diversity and availability of news, analysis and opinion’.
These new methodologies are proving to be the final straws for some of the most oppressive nations around the Middle East with leading powers that be losing their grip and being referred to as ‘digital dictators’ in an article in the Huffington Post by Courtney C. Radsch. Tight measures implemented are usually associated with the defence and in the interests of national security, which generally camouflages much deeper issues. Egypt and Tunisia are two nations whose governments demand control over information flows and developed communications within their own boundaries with unyielding surveillance, and are two which have overthrown their national governmental leaders in 2011, demonstrating the need of how fundamental a democratic media is to its people.
The world’s worst ten leading nations for media independence and freedom includes the likes of Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan. These countries operate on the premise that journalism as previously stated, are mouthpieces to their regime, with very minor amounts of unbiased information independent or otherwise allowed to be disseminated or consumed by the general public. Any breaking of this rule subsequently concludes in dramatic punishments, such as imprisonment, torture, and can lead to journalists going missing through political officiates or self-imposed exile (http://www.freedomhouse.org/).
In fact, Belarus has featured prominently in the news recently, after carrying out these punishments to the fullest extent after sentencing dissident journalist Irina Khalip with a two year suspended for her part in organising and participating in a rally opposing the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko. Her husband was an opposing political candidate Andrei Sannikov who was sentenced to five years imprisonment for his part in the protestation. This culminated in over 20 opposition activists been arrested and imprisoned (http://ifex.org/belarus/).
Uzbekistan is another nation with a completely deplorable human rights record after the Andijan massacre reaches its six year anniversary with no justice being served for the victims who were conducting peaceful and controlled protest towards government. It is yet another chilling example of outdated autocratic regimes, which assures leading super governmental bodies that this type of regime is essential in guaranteeing its survival and restoring order amidst the chaotic power struggle’s which continue to mar the former Soviet country. Although no one has since being held responsible for the atrocious slaughters committed on May 13th 2005, it is widely regarded to have been carried out by the Uzbek government on human beings that were perceived to be highly critical of governmental strategy (http://ifex.org/uzbekistan/).
Journalists play a vital role undoubtedly in democracy and Romano describes them as “nation builders” (2005: 2) as an influential part of the model for development journalism conceptualisations. Another perspective on this model is journalists as watchdogs to highlight problems in policy and performance persuading appropriate and correct action to be undertaken to address the problems. This supports investigative journalism and gives a sense of empowerment to citizens setting the agenda for change and democratic stability (Romano & Bromley 2005).
According to Habermas the press provides and important concept of a global public sphere ‘creating an informed citizenry and for civil society to form and act’. This theorization is challenged by Romano and Bromley who believe that the media often serve to maintain the status quo for the state and power holders rather than advancing mass interests, therefore can often be biased in favour of ruling and governing elites rather than the masses and dispute the ‘liberalist conception of neutral and objective press’ (2005:82). Such examples include Hong Kong achieving sovereignty and separating from Beijng.
Romano furthermore reiterates the significance of human rights and a free press by noting ‘journalists as guardians of transparency’. “Governmental systems that were participatory, transparent and accountable” (2005:11) were considered to be those of good governance which directly linked to the UNDP main goals of economic growth and the alleviation of poverty (www.undp.org). The IMF, World Bank and UNDP thereby displayed keen interests in promoting a journalists capacity to ensure governments communicated with its public encouraging responsibility and efficiency (Romano 2005). This simply meant how any further applied restrictions on the freedom of speech, information and press would undermine future good governance and economic growth. Journalists would act as watchdogs and would act as a public voice in querying any strategic mishaps within government from the public domain.
Despite the Freedom House survey reporting some improvements regionally; there have been many more movements negatively form free to partly free and to not free. The figure could be more positive when the next survey will be conducted with the recent uprisings and removal of governmental figures across the globe as previously cited for example in the Middle East and African nations. However other issues such as impunity and violence endured by professional journalists are at dangerously high rates and require immediate sanctions from the highest authorities possible to stop the alarming trend. Greater and lengthier punishments should be installed and proper measures be taken to encourage the most repressed authoritarian regimes to refrain from abusing domestic libel laws and to promote the notion of a freer press under good governance and achieve democratic constancy. It is a chilling oversight to engulf such rigorous tortures and punishments into an international community of barbaric consequences for criticising governments and officials in the 21st century. A free press can lead to positive reforms and quash the oppression needlessly suffered in leaving certain nations ‘cut-off and marooned’ from a more civil and liberal global society where access to information flows should be a necessity, and communication from whatever means available, crucial.
The precarious functioning journalistic world is full of regional disparities in media independence. We can only anticipate how many more countries will push and force their way to a revolution and move toward a freer press where viewpoints and opinion can be expressed without the continued physical threats of persecution. At the same time the global decline over the last decade, would also seem to indicate more nations losing that freedom which is strongly considered as a human right. Journalists in such countries will become more and more self-censored and forced into exile, but there will also be them which will continue to strive for greater governmental democracy and transparency fulfilling their duty as the nation’s watchdogs, firmly establishing greater press freedom in impossible circumstances which all members of the global community should have.
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