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In Some Tiny Countries, Big Progress Made on Press Freedom  

A picture taken on Nov. 19, 2019, shows a general view of downtown of the capital city Victoria, Mahe island, on the largest island in the Seychelles.

Despite an overall trend of decline in press freedom around the world, there are a few bright spots in countries that are striving to improve their governing systems.

Their gains showed up in the 2022 Global Press Freedom Index, released this week by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

One is Seychelles, located off the coast of east Africa. The island nation ranked 13th in RSF’s index, which rates 180 countries and territories, making it the top African nation for press freedom.

One reason is that journalists there haven’t been targets of violence as they have been in places like Mexico, Russia, India, Myanmar and other global hot spots.

“It’s really a country where there are no severe actions committed against journalists,” said Arnaud Froger, head of the Africa Desk at RSF.

“You don't have journalists being assaulted amid demonstrations, for example. You don’t have journalists being arrested for their work,” Froger said. “It’s a safe place to be to be a journalist.”

Seychelles is small, with only about 100,000 inhabitants. A former British colony, it gained independence in 1976 and is a democratic republic. There are currently about 10 media outlets, including three private television and radio stations, according to RSF.

Media diversity has grown and that helped boost its ranking, Froger said.

“What Seychelles was missing a few years back was that there was not so much pluralism in the media landscape,” he told VOA. “It was restricted under the influence of politicians and authorities, which is not the case anymore.”

The first private news network, TéléSesel, was launched in 2017, paving the way for journalists to produce stories independently from the government.

“You can pretty much investigate anything now in the Seychelles,” Froger said. “There is more independence for the media outlets.”

The archipelago nation’s reputation as a tourist destination has helped, Froger said.

The country wants to “safeguard that paradise image of the country,” he said, “and undermining the exercise of journalism would be bad for tourism.”

Vegetable vendors wait for customers at a traditional market in Dili on March 18, 2022, on the eve of the East Timor's presidential elections.
Vegetable vendors wait for customers at a traditional market in Dili on March 18, 2022, on the eve of the East Timor's presidential elections.

New scoring regime

In compiling its annual index this year, RSF used a new rating method that measures the political, legal, economic, sociocultural and security conditions in each country.

The more detailed approach helped vault two other small, Southeast Asian countries to the upper ranks, which historically have been dominated by big Western democracies.

East Timor gained independence from Indonesia in 2002 after decades of violent struggle. It has a population of 1.3 million. The country ranked 17th in RSF’s new index.

Bhutan, bordered by China and India, is a landlocked nation of 775,000 that sits in the Himalayas. In 2007, it went from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one, holding its first ever election in 2008. Bhutan ranked 33rd in the press freedom index.

In both countries, democratic institutions and the media are maturing in tandem.

Twenty-five years ago, tradition-bound Bhutan became one of the last countries to allow access to television and the internet. Now, the media landscape in the kingdom is evolving rapidly, according to Daniel Bastard, the Asia-Pacific director at RSF.

“What we can see in Bhutan and East Timor is that all the powers, including the government, the parliament and the judiciary, recognize press freedom and journalists in general as genuine partners in the building of these democracies,” he said.

In addition to state-owned television and newspapers, several influential private publications have emerged in a way that has bolstered journalism.

“The fact that private media outlets in Bhutan are not owned by powerful businesses helps the independence of newsrooms in these organizations,” Bastard said.

In East Timor, a traditional deference to those in authority can be an obstacle for journalists, sometimes making it hard to criticize leaders.

“If you watch news in East Timor, you will see much fact-based reporting versus more analytical coverage or investigative journalism,” said Parker Novak, a U.S.-based expert on East Timor who has lived and worked there.

The cons of being small

While journalistic endeavors are growing, challenges remain. Legal protections for the press are always vulnerable to abuse. And reporting in a small country can get personal.

“In the case of Bhutan, it would be badly seen if you criticize the monarchy, and you may have bad reactions even from your colleagues,” Bastard said. “So, I think people won't dare to tackle this issue. If they did so, they would be very, very careful.”

In East Timor, he said, being critical of the Catholic clergy is considered taboo. Catholics are estimated to make up 95% of the population.

“The press in East Timor would talk about problems within the clergy in other countries, and they would be totally transparent about it, including covering issues like child molesting by Catholic priests in Australia and other countries,” Bastard said.

Not so for East Timor. “Does this mean that [molestation] rarely exists?” he said. “Or does it mean that journalists censor themselves about such issues?”

The East Timorese parliament passed a media act in 2014 that observers see as an obstacle to the government’s stated commitment to safeguarding press freedom.

The law gives the country’s Press Council authority to grant journalists work permits, potentially allowing the government to lock out reporters it doesn’t like.

The rapid spread of smartphones and social media to trade information – and disinformation – also poses challenges.

“That’s a trend worth keeping an eye on as to something that could prove to be a societal asset or it could also prove to be a challenge as many other societies, including neighboring Indonesia, are grappling with,” analyst Novak said of East Timor.