A Washington-based human rights organization says that, overall, press freedom around the world stopped declining in 2011. But while there are positive changes in some countries, the overall picture is not too bright. Last year, less than 15 percent of the world's population had access to a free press.
The manager of Freedom House's freedom of expression campaign, Courtney Radsch, says press freedom gains in 2011 offset the declines.
"For the first time in eight years, the negative trend that we've seen with the declines in freedom of expression around the world was staid and we actually saw some slight uptick and improvement, in large part due to gains in the Middle East," said Radsch. "Libya, Tunisia, Egypt all went from 'not free' to 'partly free,' which was a pretty momentous change, and we also had countries like Burma that came out from under incredibly oppressive political rule."
Radsch made the comments at a news conference in Washington Thursday, as Freedom House released its annual press freedom report.
Radsch said of the 197 countries and territories that were assessed in 2011 - including the newest country of South Sudan - 66 [or 33.5%] were rated 'free,' 72 [or 36.5%] were 'partly free' and 59 [or 30%] were rated 'not free.'
That means roughly one-third of the world's countries fill each category, but Radsch says that is not the case for the world's inhabitants.
"But if you look at the population, it's a bit more dire," she said. "We found that only about 14.5 percent of the world's inhabitants live in a country with a free press, where they can express themselves, the press is economically independent and free from political interference, and this is, of course, incredibly disturbing."
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle delivered remarks at the start of the panel. He said it may seem that a free press is a reality in this era of the Internet and social networking websites, but that is not the case worldwide.
"We all know in Iran and elsewhere, censorship continues to oppress the free flow of information, to distort facts and to change the perception of reality," said Westerwelle. "Not only in Belarus, journalists still are behind bars, for the mere fact that they act according to Article 19 [of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights]. As we speak, journalists have died, have been attacked and risk being killed while reporting about the bloodshed in Syria. All that reminds us of how heavy the responsibilities of journalists are and how precious and dangerous their daily work can be."
The Freedom House report says the media environment in the Middle East and North Africa underwent major improvements in 2011, but remained the worst-performing part of the world. Sub-Saharan Africa suffered a marginal decline in press freedom, with some backsliding in countries that had improved in 2010, while, Zambia, Niger and Sierra Leone showed some improvements.
According to the report, Western Europe has consistently boasted the highest level of press freedom worldwide, while press freedoms declined significantly in Central and Eastern Europe. The Americas also experienced a worsening of press freedom in 2011. The United States remained a strong performer, but it experienced a slight decline because of difficulties reporters faced covering the Occupy protests. Mexico continued to be one of the world's most dangerous places for journalists.
The Freedom House report is based on nations' legal environments, political control over the media, economic pressures on content and harassment of journalists.
Press Freedom Challenges in the US
Radsch made this comment about the challeges to a free press in the United States:
"One of the challenges here in the United States is the economic consolidation and the increasingly dire economic situation for newspapers in particular, the closure of independent outlets, and we still lack a federal shield law. There are some states that have shield law, which essentially allows a journalist to protect their sources, but we've also seen attempts to create legal mechanisms and use, for example, some of the anti-terrorism laws as a way to get information from journalists. So, I think one of the things that our survey underscores, especially in the cases of Hungary and the United States, is that even consolidated democracies face challenges in protecting freedom of expression and freedom of the press. As you know, our survey looks at the entire environment, so it looks at the political, legal and economic environment because it really is about the media ecosystem that presents a free press."