Each year at this time, Freedom House issues a report on the state of global media freedom. The overall findings for 2012 were bleak: Just 14 percent of the world’s population lives in societies that enjoy vibrant coverage of public affairs, a legal environment that undergirds a free press, and freedom from intrusion by the government or other political forces.
The countries profiled below are members of an ignoble club — the 10 most serious violators of press freedom in the world. Most of these countries do have constitutions that pay tribute to the values of freedom of speech and information, but in reality, these protections are often superseded by laws that criminalize press commentary that, according to these regimes, insults the political leadership, breeds “hate,” supports “terrorism,” or threatens national security.
The methods employed to enforce a regime of censorship vary from the downright thuggish to more nuanced tactics. The absence of outright violence does not necessarily signify that a country enjoys a freer media landscape than a country where journalists are regularly murdered.
Decades of totalitarian control in North Korea and Cuba have rendered serious efforts at independent journalism nonexistent in the first case and rare in the second.
Many believe that the Internet and other forms of new media will be instruments of liberation for the oppressed. But most of the countries described still have relatively low Internet penetration rates, and in every case, policies have been put in place to limit new media’s potential political impact. Whether these measures will prove effective as these countries move to further integrate in the global economy is open to serious question:
1. North Korea
From Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un, North Korea has retained the grimmest media environment in the world. The party-state owns the press in its entirety and devotes considerable energy and resources to the task of preventing North Koreans from hearing alternative interpretations of events.
According to the constitution, news coverage should conform to the “collective spirit,” an Orwellian phrase that in practice means building up the image of the leader as loved by his own people and feared by everyone else and condemning regime critics as “hyenas,” ” jackals,” and other stock insults from an archaic totalitarian vocabulary that other dictatorships abandoned decades ago.
Although the Associated Press has been allowed to set up a bureau in Pyongyang, foreign journalists are placed under the control of special minders, who seize their mobile phones on arrival, guard against chance meetings with ordinary people, and carefully monitor their movements.
While North Korea has kept Internet penetration low, the state has come to recognize new media’s potential as yet another instrument of propaganda both at home and for a foreign audience.
North Korea even maintains its own official YouTube and Twitter handles. Internet connections, however, are restricted to a handful of approved high-level officials and academics who have received state approval. For average citizens, web access is available only to a nationwide intranet — the Kwangmyong — that does not link to foreign sites.
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President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s government maintains near-total control over the media. Indeed, the level of suppression is so complete that while libel is a criminal offense, it is seldom invoked because of the near-total absence of independent reporting.
The regime would probably argue that there is little need for journalistic watchdogs, given that the president was reelected in 2012 with a 97.14 percent majority. State surveillance is so pervasive that kindergartens have been instructed to report on each child’s family members going back three generations.
To be sure, a few courageous reporters and NGO activists do try to inform the public about life in Turkmenistan. But the state has ways to discourage its critics.
The day after human rights defender Nataliya Shabunts criticized the government in a radio interview, a bloody sheep’s head was placed at her door. On a more mundane level, independent-minded reporters are blacklisted and prevented from traveling either inside Turkmenistan or abroad.
On several occasions, the government has ordered the removal of satellite dishes in Ashgabat, which convey various international news stations to Turkmens.
Few complied with the directives, but access to satellite television remains limited due to the cost. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan has announced its intention to launch its own communications satellite to control broadcasting even more thoroughly (currently, Russian and Turkish channels are broadcast in the country).
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President Islam Karimov has an effective, though not especially nuanced, method to silence critical voices: His authorities fine, imprison, or deport individual journalists, and shut down newspapers that depart from the official explanation of events. When dealing with critics, a lack of evidence is not necessarily an obstacle.
Investigative journalist Victor Krymzalov was fined after being found guilty of defamation for an article in Centrasia.ru that was published without a byline. Another independent journalist, Elena Bondar, was convicted on the unusual charge of “collective libel” for an article about the closing of a university.
One imprisoned journalist, Muhammad Bekjanov — who was charged with attempting to overthrow the regime — was due to be released in January when Kazan’s district court sentenced him to an additional five years on charges of breaking unspecified prison rules.
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According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 28 journalists were imprisoned in Eritrea at the end of 2012, which makes the country among the most hostile to reporters on a per capita basis.
Nine have been in prison since 2001. Often no charges are made public, though in some cases it is believed that the crime is planning to join other independent reporters who have fled the country.
In an extraordinary twist, the minister of information, Ali Abdu, had reportedly fled Eritrea at the end of 2012 while on a trip in Europe. Ali’s family, including his father and teenage daughter, have since been arrested by Eritrean authorities.
Going into exile is no guarantee of escaping the reach of the Eritrean state. For example, a diaspora journalist running a website in neighboring Sudan,adoulis.com, was arrested in 2011 less than a week after an official visit to Sudan by the Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki.
The government requires all Internet service providers to use government-controlled Internet infrastructure. Many websites managed by Eritreans abroad are blocked, as is YouTube.
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That Belarus is included in this list is not surprising, given President Alexander Lukashenko’sassertion that, “There is nothing more unbearable for a person than liberty.” He has devoted his nearly 19 years in power to relieving the burden of freedom from his citizens.
One after another, he has shuttered independent newspapers and television stations, used state media as a propaganda weapon, and jailed, fined, and harassed journalists who stubbornly resisted Lukashenko’s unique brand of retro-communism.
The authorities regularly punish or close media that publish materials that do not “correspond to reality” or threaten “the interests of the state.” The law also calls for penalties against outlets that report statements — for example, by political parties or NGOs — that “discredit the Republic of Belarus.”
The government subjects both independent and foreign media as well as press-freedom activists to systematic political intimidation for reporting on human rights abuses and unauthorized demonstrations.
Officials regularly harass the Belarusian Association of Journalists in retaliation for its work defending journalists, and state television broadcasts pseudo-documentaries designed to smear the organization and its leaders. Foreign journalists are not immune from harassment.
Last June, Iryna Khalip, the Belarus correspondent for the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta, found adecapitated chicken’s head in her mailbox after she had written articles critical of the regime.
With Internet penetration now approaching 50 percent, authorities have devoted considerable resources to gaining control of cyberspace. In response, the state requires domestic and international websites to register with the Information Ministry, forcing many independent print publications to switch to domain names based in neighboring countries.
The state-owned telecommunications company Beltelekom, which is the sole internet service provider, already controls all international data transfers and blocks some critical websites, while the security services reportedly monitor internet communications and spread keylogger Trojan viruses to steal passwords from website editors. The authorities have also responded to the growing influence of the internet by escalating prosecutions of journalists reporting for web sites.
Well into the 21st century, Cuba retains a censorship regime that differs little from the policies that prevailed in the Soviet Union during the Brezhnev period. The constitution eschews the hypocritical nods to freedom of expression that are the hallmark of other repressive states.
Instead, it straightforwardly prohibits private ownership of media outlets and allows free speech and journalism only if they “conform to the aims of a socialist society.” Article 91 of the penal code imposes lengthy prison sentences or death for those who act against “the independence or the territorial integrity of the state,” and Law 88 for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy imposes up to 20 years in prison for committing acts “aimed at subverting the internal order of the nation and destroying its political, economic, and social system.”
Expectations for a more relaxed press environment waned in 2012, as the initial optimism following the 2010 and 2011 release of journalists imprisoned during the 2003 “Black Spring” — when the government arrested and imprisonment 75 Cuban dissidents — gave way to a media crackdown.
Independent Cuban journalists continued to be subject to harassment and arbitrary detention for their reporting on topics deemed sensitive by the government and coverage of internationally-covered events, or any perceived critique of the state.
Such harassment took the form of arbitrary short-term detentions, in deportations, house arrests, and blocking of individuals’ cellular phone service.
By year’s end two imprisoned Cuban journalists faced harsh prison sentences, prompting many to fear a return to earlier periods of repression. Press repression was especially harsh during the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the island, during which a number of independent journalists and bloggers were subject to short-term detention, and were blocked from attending the pope’s open masses in the cities of Santiago de Cuba and Havana.
Prominent Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez was detained en route to the city of Bayamo to cover a trial, along with her husband, journalist Reinaldo Escobar and dissident blogger Agustín Díaz.
As many as 23 percent of Cubans have access to the Internet, though fewer than 10 percent have access to the web. The vast majority of Internet users have access only to a closely monitored Cuban intranet, consisting of an encyclopedia, email addresses ending in “.cu” used by universities and government officials, and a few government-run websites.
For the average Cuban, access to the World Wide Web comes through outdated dial-up technology, and is often limited to international email. In 2012, the Cuban government set rates for web access at $6.50 an hour, and $1.65 an hour for international email (the average monthly salary is $20).
The regime threatens anyone connecting to the Internet illegally with five years in prison, while the sentence for writing “counterrevolutionary” articles for foreign websites is 20 years.
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The assault on freedom of expression continues at an accelerated pace in the Islamic Republic. A major trend of late has been book banning. Some 250 “subversive” titles were banned ahead of the 2012 Tehran International Book Fair, and Cheshmeh Publications, one of the largest publishing houses in Iran, had its operating license revoked in June 2012 for publishing an offensive book about Imam Hossein.
The government directly controls all television and radio broadcasting. Satellite dishes are popular, despite being illegal, and there have been increasing reports of dish confiscation and steep fines.
The authorities frequently issue ad hoc orders banning media coverage of specific topics and events, including the economic impact of international sanctions, the fate of opposition leaders, and criticism of the country’s nuclear policy.
Cooperation with Persian-language satellite news channels based abroad is banned. The government has also placed pressure on the family members of journalists living abroad, including BBC Persian employees, who have been harassed, questioned, and detained by the security and intelligence apparatus.
Last year the government ordered theclosure of the House of Cinema, an independent professional association that supported some 5,000 Iranian filmmakers and artists.
Numerous periodicals were closed for morality or security offenses in 2012, including the independent newspaper Maghreb, which was found in violation of press laws following its publication of a cartoon of President Ahmadinejad.
In a sign of desperation, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, an Ahmadinejad adviser and head of the state news agency, was jailed for six months for publishing content “contrary to Islamic standards.” And a special media court found Reuters bureau chief Parisa Hafezi guilty of “disseminating lies” for a story on women practicing martial arts in Iran and suspended the agency’s accreditation.
Iran ranks second in the world for the number of jailed journalists, with 45 behind bars as of December 2012, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Internet penetration has skyrocketed in recent years, but authorities have consequently established draconian laws and practices to restrict access to communication tools, persecute dissidents for their online activity, and strengthen the government’s vast censorship apparatus.
Key international social-media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were blocked after the 2009 election, and the number of disabled political sites continues to expand.
The 2010 Computer Crimes Law is freighted with vaguely defined offenses that effectively criminalize legitimate online expression; the law also legalizes government surveillance of the internet. In January 2012, the authorities unveiled new regulations that oblige cybercafé owners to record the personal information and browsing histories of customers.
The first phase of a national intranet, aimed at disconnecting the population from the global Internet, was launched last September.
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8. Equatorial Guinea
By law, the government of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema has prepublication access to newspaper articles and commentaries, a power which, not surprisingly, encourages self-censorship.
Although journalists have been allowed to voice mild criticism of state institutions, criticism of the president, his family, other high-ranking officials, and the security forces is not tolerated. Journalists were unable to inform the public about the multiple international criminal investigations into alleged money-laundering by the president’s son.
Local journalists and private publications are required to register with the government through an impossibly complex bureaucratic process. Few international correspondents are granted access to the country and those who are given visas are subject to censorship and prohibited from reporting on poverty and the oil sector.
In late 2012, press freedom defender Manuel Nze Nsongo died under mysterious circumstances, a major blow for Equatorial Guinea’s independent media.
For those interested in opposition views, the Internet has replaced broadcast media as the source of choice. Unfortunately, Internet penetration is estimated at only 6 percent.
Journalists are not immune to the Syrian slaughterhouse. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists there were 28 killed during 2012, with the Assad regime and the opposition dividing responsibility.
Conditions were abysmal for reporters even before the current conflict. The 2001 Press Law allows for broad state control over all print media and forbids reporting on topics that are deemed sensitive by the government, such as issues of national security or national unity; it also forbids the publication of inaccurate information, as interpreted by the state.
Individuals found guilty of violating the Press Law face one to three years in prison and fines ranging from $10,000 to $20,000. The prime minister has the power to grant or deny licenses to journalists.
In 2011, Assad issued a new media law, which prohibits a “monopoly on the media,” guarantees the “right to access information about public affairs,” and bans “the arrest, questioning, or searching of journalists.”
However, it also bars the media from publishing content that affects “national unity and national security,” inciting sectarian strife or “hate crimes.” The law also forbids the publication of any information about the armed forces.
Article 3 states that the law “upholds freedom of expression guaranteed in the Syrian constitution” and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but Article 4 says the media must “respect this freedom of expression” by “practicing it with awareness and responsibility.” Not surprisingly, the government continued to arrest journalists under the ambiguous charge of threatening “national security.”
Syria’s civil war has made a bad media landscape even worse. Syrian authorities continue to forcibly restrict coverage of the unrest and misreport the uprising on state-run television stations.
Until rather recently, Assad tried to control world perceptions by banning all but a few foreign journalists, though that policy has begun to change. At the same time, the regime’s loss of control in certain regions has meant less pervasive censorship.
Media outlets that previously did not cover political developments have become sources of genuine news for Syrians in parts of the country. There is now more open criticism of the regime. Pro-opposition newspapers, such as Suryitna, Oxygen,Hurriyat, and Enab Baladi, have also popped up, though they tend to circulate either underground or online.
Citizen journalists continue to be critical in providing foreign outlets with video recordings of protests and atrocities, but the authenticity of these recordings can be difficult to verify.
Restrictions on the press have steadily worsened since pro-democracy protests began in 2011. Media control is made simple by the fact that the government owns all broadcast media outlets and the private owners of the three main newspapers have close ties to the state.
The government and its supporters have used the press to smear human rights and opposition activists. Self-censorship is encouraged by the vaguely worded 2002 Press Law, which allows the state to imprison journalists for criticizing the king or Islam, or for threatening “national security.”
Many domestic journalists have been arrested and detained without warrants and confessions have been extracted through torture. The prominent blogger Ali Abdulemam, a regular contributor to the popular opposition web forum Bahrain Online, was sentenced, in absentia to 15 years in prison by a military court in 2011, and he remained missing in 2012.
The government continues to block a number of opposition websites, including those that broadcast protests. The authorities also obstructed foreign journalists’ through the denial of visas and arrests and deportations of those who have tried to cover protest demonstrations.
A Shi’a media exists only outside the country, but the state has spent huge amounts on cyber censorship and monitoring capabilities and has become increasingly effective at blocking access to foreign-based sites.