According to Wikipedia, Reporters Without Borders (RWB), or Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), is a France-based international non-profit, non-governmental organization that promotes and defends freedom of information and freedom of the press. The organization has consultant status at the United Nations. Reporters Without Borders has two primary spheres of activity: one is focused on Internet Censorship and the New Media, and the other on providing material, financial and psychological assistance to journalists assigned to dangerous areas. Its missions are to:
1. Continuously monitor attacks on freedom of information worldwide;
2. Denounce any such attacks in the media;
3. Act in cooperation with governments to fight censorship and laws aimed at restricting freedom of information;
4. Morally and financially assist persecuted journalists, as well as their families;
5. Offer material assistance to war correspondents in order to enhance their safety.
World Press Freedom Index
RWB compiles and publishes World Press Freedom Index, an annual ranking of countries based upon the organization’s assessment of their press freedom records. Small countries, such as Andorra, are excluded from this report. The report is based on a questionnaire sent to partner organizations of Reporters Without Borders (14 freedom of expression groups in five continents) and its 130 correspondents around the world, as well as to journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists.
The survey asks questions about direct attacks on journalists and the media as well as other indirect sources of pressure against the free press. RWB is careful to note that the index only deals with press freedom, and does not measure the quality of journalism. Due to the nature of the survey’s methodology based on individual perceptions, there are often wide contrasts in a country’s ranking from year to year.
2014 World Press Freedom Index
The recent witch hunt promoted by the Obama administration against the whistleblowers Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange made the United States fall to 46th place (in a list with a total of 180 countries) in the ranking of countries that offer more dangers or obstacles to the work of professionals of the press or in more severe cases, restrict the press freedom. Read more here.
The recent arrests of media professionals, police aggression on journalists during protests in Brazil, and the death of cameraman Santiago Andrade on Monday after being injured in a demonstration in Rio de Janeiro are some of the cases that helped Brazil to remain among the countries that impose dangers and difficulties to the work of journalists in Latin America. The false democratic rhetoric of the Brazilian government has not helped the country to emerge from the 111th position, just ahead of Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia. Read more here.
Biggest rises and falls in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index
The 2014 World Press Freedom Index spotlights the negative impact of conflicts on freedom of information and its protagonists. The ranking of some countries has also been affected by a tendency to interpret national security needs in an overly broad and abusive manner to the detriment of the right to inform and be informed. This trend constitutes a growing threat worldwide and is even endangering freedom of information in countries regarded as democracies. Finland tops the index for the fourth year running, closely followed by Netherlands and Norway, like last year.
At the other end of the index, the last three positions are again held by Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea, three countries where freedom of information is non-existent. Despite occasional turbulence in the past year, these countries continue to be news and information black holes and living hells for the journalists who inhabit them. This year’s index covers 180 countries, one more than last year. The new entry, Belize, has been assigned an enviable position (29th). Cases of violence against journalists are rare in Belize but there were some problems: defamation suits involving demands for large amounts in damages, national security restrictions on implementation of the Freedom of Information Act and sometimes unfair management of broadcast frequencies.
FALLS DUE TO ARMED CONFLICTS
The 2014 index underscores the negative correlation between freedom of information and conflicts, both open conflicts and undeclared ones. In an unstable environment, the media become strategic goals and targets for groups or individuals whose attempts to control news and information violate the guarantees enshrined in international law, in particular, article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the 1977 Protocols Additional 1 and 2 to the Geneva Conventions.
Syria (unchanged at 177th) has been an extreme example of this since March 2011. Now one of the countries where freedom of information and its actors are most in danger, it rubs shoulders with the bottom three. The Syrian crisis has also had dramatic repercussions throughout the region, reinforcing media polarization in Lebanon (106th, -4), encouraging the Jordanian authorities to tighten their grip, and accelerating the spiral of violence in Iraq (153rd, -2), where tension between Shiites and Sunnis is growing.
INFORMATION SACRIFICED TO NATIONAL SECURITY AND SURVEILLANCE
Countries that pride themselves on being democracies and respecting the rule of law have not set an example, far from it. Freedom of information is too often sacrificed to an overly broad and abusive interpretation of national security needs, marking a disturbing retreat from democratic practices. Investigative journalism often suffers as a result.
This has been the case in the United States (46th), which fell 13 places, one of the most significant declines, amid increased efforts to track down whistleblowers and the sources of leaks. The trial and conviction of Private Bradley Manning and the pursuit of NSA analyst Edward Snowden were warnings to all those thinking of assisting in the disclosure of sensitive information that would clearly be in the public interest.
US journalists were stunned by the Department of Justice’s seizure of Associated Press phone records without warning in order to identify the source of a CIA leak. It served as a reminder of the urgent need for a “shield law” to protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources at the federal level. The revival of the legislative process is little consolation for James Risen of The New York Times, who is subject to a court order to testify against a former CIA employee accused of leaking classified information. And less still for Barrett Brown, a young freelance journalist facing 105 years in prison in connection with the posting of information that hackers obtained from Statfor, a private intelligence company with close ties to the federal government.
The United Kingdom (33rd, -3) distinguished itself in the war on terror by the disgraceful pressure it put on The Guardian newspaper and by its detention of David Miranda, journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner and assistant, for nine hours. Both the US and UK authorities seem obsessed with hunting down whistleblowers instead of adopting legislation to rein in abusive surveillance practices that negate privacy, a democratic value cherished in both countries.
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AMERICAS: MEDIA UNDER THREAT FROM VIOLENCE
More than 20 years have passed since the military dictatorships and civil wars ended in Latin America and the Caribbean, except Colombia, which still endures an armed conflict that began half a century ago. Cuba is also distinguished by a regime inherited from the Cold War that tolerates no independent watchdogs although an emerging civil society is challenging its “model.”
Peace and democratic institutions have been established in the region, at least formally, as there is a long road from constitutional guarantees of civil liberties to real democracy with respect for the rule of law. Many journalists and human rights defenders continue to be exposed to a high level violence that comes from different quarters including organized crime, paramilitary groups and sometimes the state.
Honduras is an example of such a confluence of violence, with a murder rate comparable to that of a country at war – 80 per 100,000 in a population of 7 million. More than 30 journalists have been killed in the past decade, 27 of them since the June 2009 coup that ousted Manuel Zelaya, an elected president. A link with the victim’s work as a journalist has been established in nine of these murders but almost all of them have gone unpunished in this failed state. Militias in the pay of big landowners, the militarized police, the army and the criminal cartels all have a hand in the threats, beatings and shootings and in the “protection” of certain media.
The situation is similar in other parts of Central America and the Andes. In Peru and Colombia, covering drug trafficking, corruption, land conflicts or mining conflicts exposes journalists to reprisals. There is a slim but real hope of an imminent peace accord between the Colombian government and the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Nonetheless, even if the hope is realized, it will leave the narco-paramilitaries, a side-product of the civil war, still in place. How many journalists, trade unions, human rights lawyers and civil society activists have been subjected to often deadly harassment and pressure from reconstituted paramilitary units such as the Urabeños or Rastrojos?
In Mexico, the Zetas and other criminal organizations act in a similar predatory manner towards journalists with the complicity of corrupt local, and sometimes federal, officials. No fewer than 88 journalists were killed from 2000 to the end of 2013, and 18 others disappeared during the same period. This appalling death toll was aggravated by the so-called “federal offensive” against the drug cartels under President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), in which more than 60,000 people were killed.
Organized crime and its infiltration of the state apparatus also obstructs media work and, in particular, investigative reporting in countries further south such as Brazil and Paraguay. In these countries, and in others, the position of journalists is often weakened by their lack of status, a lack of solidarity within the profession and the tragic subjugation of the media, especially the regional media, to centres of political power and influence. In Brazil, the phenomenon of “colonels,” regional politicians who are also businessmen and media owners, constitutes a major obstacle to media pluralism and independence, turning journalists into the tools of local barons and exposing them to often deadly score-settling.
Journalists and news media are also political tools in highly polarized countries where the polarization between the private sector and the public sector (or the state) develops into sometimes violent confrontation. An extreme example is Venezuela, where the level of insults and physical attacks increases during the frequent election campaigns. A similar climate exists in Ecuador and Bolivia and, to a lesser extent, Argentina.
USA AND BRAZIL – NEW WORLD GIANTS THAT SET A BAD EXAMPLE
One is a superpower and the other an emerging power. One for a long time was the embodiment of an established democracy where civil liberties reign supreme. The other created the conditions for developing a powerful civil society during the Lula years (2003-2010) on the basis of a democratic constitution adopted just three years after the end of two decades of military dictatorship (1964-1985). Rich in diversity, the United States and Brazil should have given freedom of information a supreme position both in their laws and their social values. Unfortunately the reality falls far short of this.
In the United States, 9/11 spawned a major conflict between the imperatives of national security and the principles of the constitution’s First Amendment. This amendment enshrines every person’s right to inform and be informed. But the heritage of the 1776 constitution was shaken to its foundations during George W. Bush’s two terms as president by the way journalists were harassed and even imprisoned for refusing to reveal their sources or surrender their files to federal judicial officials.
There has been little improvement in practice under Barack Obama. Rather than pursuing journalists, the emphasis has been on going after their sources, but often using the journalist to identify them. No fewer that eight individuals have been charged under the Espionage Act since Obama became president, compared with three during Bush’s two terms. While 2012 was in part the year of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, 2013 will be remember for the National Security Agency computer specialist Edward Snowden, who exposed the mass surveillance methods developed by the US intelligence agencies.
The whistleblower is the enemy. Hence the 35-year jail term imposed on Private Chelsea/Bradley Manning for being the big WikiLeaks source, an extremely long sentence but nonetheless small in comparison with the 105-year sentence requested for freelance journalist Barrett Brown in a hacking case. Amid an all-out hunt for leaks and sources, 2013 will also be the year of the Associated Press scandal, which came to light when the Department of Justice acknowledged that it had seized the news agency’s phone records.
While investigative journalism is under threat in the United States, day-to-day reporting exposes journalists to physical danger in Brazil. With five journalists killed in 2013, Brazil has become the western hemisphere’s deadliest country for media personnel, the position held until then by Mexico, a much more dangerous country.
These tragic deaths in Brazil are obviously also due to a high level of violence. Organized crime’s hold on certain regions makes covering subjects such as corruption, drugs or illegal trafficking in raw materials very risky. The crime rings defend themselves. So do government officials, sometimes using force but more often judicial proceedings. Lúcio Flávio Pinto, a journalist and campaigner against trafficking in precious wood has been the target of no fewer that 33 prosecutions and lawsuits. It is a paradox of the 2009 repeal of the 1967 media law inherited from the military dictatorship that compliant courts are now jammed with requests by politicians for censorship orders against news media and journalists
Many of these politicians are what are called “colonels” – governors or parliamentarians who own the state they represent. They own or control local newspapers and radio stations while, at the national level, ten families control the broadcast media. This media model, which limits pluralism, was one of the targets of the “Brazilian spring” protests that were forcibly dispersed. The giant has been slow to overhaul this model, to the detriment of the many community and alternative media.
Brazil – not so sunny spring
News providers were among those hit by the major police crackdown in Brazil in 2013. The large-scale protests that erupted in São Paulo in June in response to public transport fare hikes spread to the rest of the country, fuelled by discontent about the massive spending on the 2014 Football World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. The “Brazilian spring” protests raised questions about the dominant media model and highlighted the appalling methods still used by the state military police since the time of the dictatorship. In the course of the protests, around 100 journalists were the victims of acts of violence, of which more than two thirds were blamed on the police.
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Predators of Press Freedom
Starting in 2001 Reporters Without Borders has published its annual Predators of Press Freedom list which highlights what it feels are the worst violators of press freedom. In May 2013 RWB named 39 leaders or groups as Predators of Freedom of Information:
Abdallah Ibn Al-Saud, King, Saudi Arabia
Al-Shabaab, armed Islamist militia, Somalia
Alexander Lukashenko, President, Belarus
Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Iran
Baloch armed groups, Pakistan (added in 2013)
Bashar Al-Assad, President, Syria
“Black Eagles”, Paramilitary group, Colombia
Boko Haram, Islamist group, Nigeria
Choummaly Sayasone, President, Laos
Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, President, Turkmenistan
Hamad Ben Aissa Al Khalifa, King, Bahrain
Ilham Aliev, President, Azerbaijan
Islam Karimov, President, Uzbekistan
Israel Defense Forces, Israel
Issaias Afeworki, President, Eritrea
Italian organized crime
Jabhat Al-Nosra, Syrian jihadi group (added in 2013)
Kim Jong-un, Supreme leader, First Chairman of the National Defence Commission, and First Secretary of the Workers’ Party, North Korea
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President, Iran
Maldives’ religious extremists (added in 2013) Miguel Facussé Barjum, Businessman and landowner, Honduras
Miguel Treviño Morales and the Los Zetas drug cartel, Mexico
Mollah Mohammad Omar, Taliban chief, Afghanistan and Pakistan
Mswati III, King, Swaziland
Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt (added 2013)
Nguyen Phu Trong, Communist Party general secretary, Vietnam
Nursultan Nazarbayev, President, Kazakhstan
Pakistani government intelligence agencies
Paul Kagame, President, Rwanda
Philippine private militias
Rajapaksa Brothers: MahindaRa, President and Defence Minister and Gotabaya, Defence Secretary, Sri Lanka
Ramzan Kadyrov, President of the Republic of Chechnya
Raúl Castro, President of the Council of State, Cuba
Robert Mugabe, President, Zimbabwe
Teodoro Obiang Nguema, President, Equatorial Guinea
Vasif Talibov, Supreme Council President, Azerbaijan
Vladimir Putin, President, Russian Federation
Xi Jinping, President and General Secretary of the Communist Party, China (added in 2013)
Yahya Jammeh, President, Gambia
In 2013, the marketing company BETC and RWB made a campaign for the World Press Freedom Day, celebrated on May 3. I could not pass up the opportunity to include in this select list Her Excellency Madame President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff. With the word, the main accused of threatening the work of journalists in their respective countries…