From conflict-ridden Syria to aspiring world leader Brazil, 10 nations on a downslope. By Karen Phillips
Ecuadoran law forbids the presidential family to benefit from state contracts. But after Christian Zurita and Juan Carlos Calderón’s book, Big Brother, revealed that President Rafael Correa’s brother had obtained $600 million in government contracts, they were the ones in trouble with the law. Zurita and Calderón were found guilty of defaming the president and ordered to pay $1 million in damages apiece. Correa later pardoned the two, having accomplished his goal of intimidating the nation’s press corps. “It was clear that no small or medium-sized media outlet was going to take on major critical reporting against the government,” Zurita told CPJ.
Correa’s use of defamation lawsuits to silence dissent is one of several repressive government tactics that propelled Ecuador onto the CPJ Risk List, which identifies the 10 countries worldwide where press freedom suffered the most in 2012. CPJ, which is publishing its Risk List for the first time, also identified Syria and Somalia, which are racked by conflict, along with Iran, Vietnam, and Ethiopia, nations that are ruled with an authoritarian grip. But half of the nations on the Risk List–Brazil, Turkey, Pakistan, and Russia, along with Ecuador–practice some form of democracy and exert significant influence on a regional or international stage.
In determining the list, CPJ staff examined six press freedom indicators: fatalities, imprisonments, restrictive legislation, state censorship, impunity in anti-press attacks, and journalists driven into exile. Countries named to the Risk List are not necessarily the world’s worst places for journalists; such a list would include nations like North Korea and Eritrea, where free expression has long been suffocated. Instead, the Risk List identifies the 10 places where CPJ documented the most significant downward trends during 2012. Those trends included:
Threats to press freedom were not confined within the borders of these nations. Four Risk List countries sought to undermine international or regional press freedom initiatives during the year. Russia pushed for centralized control of the Internet ahead of the World Conference on International Telecommunications. Ecuador led an effort, supported by Brazil, to weaken the ability of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to intervene in cases of systemic or grave press freedom abuses. Brazil and Pakistan were among a handful of countries that tried to derail a U.N. plan to improve journalist security and combat impunity worldwide.
Setbacks in Brazil are particularly alarming given its status as a regional leader and home to a diverse array of news media. But a spike in journalist murders, a failure to address impunity, and a pattern of judicial censorship have put Brazil’s press freedom at risk, CPJ found. Turkey, too, has projected an image as a regional model for freedom and democracy. But while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has expressed a commitment to press freedom, his administration has wielded an anti-terror law as a club to jail and intimidate journalists.
Less surprising, but no less worrisome are setbacks in Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Iran. Though Ethiopia and Vietnam have been applauded for economic strides, both countries have lagged in terms of openness and freedom of the press. Conditions worsened in 2012, as Ethiopian and Vietnamese authorities ramped up efforts to stifle dissent by imprisoning journalists on anti-state charges. Iran, ignoring international criticism of its press record, has intensified an assault on critical voices that began after the disputed 2009 presidential election.
In Syria and Somalia, where journalists faced risks from multiple sides, the death tolls have mounted. Crossfire was the leading cause of death for journalists in Syria, although at least three journalists were assassinated, CPJ research shows. Both rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have been implicated in acts of violence against the press. All 12 journalists killed in Somalia in 2012, the country’s bloodiest year for the press, were targeted in direct reprisal for their reporting. Both insurgents and government officials were suspected of involvement. In both countries, the ranks of young journalists, many with little training and experience, have been particularly hard hit.
Here, in alphabetical order, are capsule reports on the 10 nations named to the CPJ Risk List:
“The lack of serious investigations in these crimes has given aggressors the notion that they won’t be identified and punished,” said Mauri König, a veteran investigative reporter who CPJ honored in 2012 with an International Press Freedom Award. Brazil ranked 11th on CPJ’s 2012 Impunity Index, which calculates unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of each country’s population.
Judicial censorship remains a problem in Brazil, where businessmen, politicians, and public officials have filed hundreds of lawsuits claiming that critical journalists have offended their honor or invaded their privacy, CPJ research shows. Plaintiffs typically seek court orders to bar journalists from publishing anything further about them and to have existing online material taken down. In the first six months of 2012, Google said, Brazilian courts and other authorities sent the company 191 orders to remove material.
“Such lawsuits undermine Brazilian democracy and its press, and create a climate of legal uncertainty which, to some extent, is reflected in the quality of coverage of issues of public interest,” König told CPJ.
Brazil also failed to support press freedom on the global stage. In March, objections raised by Brazil and a handful of other nations nearly thwarted a U.N. plan to improve journalist security and combat impunity worldwide. Three months later, Brazil supported an Ecuador-led offensive to weaken the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and its special rapporteur on freedom of expression.
The president has made a practice of demonizing the press, routinely calling journalists “liars” if they don’t parrot his government’s views. “The administration has adopted a policy of generating polarization between the media and the government,” Zurita said. Facing legal harassment, three journalists fled into exile in 2012, marking Ecuador’s first appearance on CPJ’s annual exile report, which tracks journalists forced to flee their countries. (Two of these journalists were later able to return.) In September, threats forced journalist Janet Hinostroza to take a leave of absence from her show on the private network Teleamazonas, where she had been investigating allegations of banking improprieties involving a presidential relative.
Though the administration maintained one of the most extensive state media operations in the hemisphere, government regulators closed at least 11 private broadcasters during the year. Although officials cited regulatory violations, most of the stations had been critical of the government.
Four journalists fled Ethiopia in the face of possible imprisonment, CPJ’s 2012 exile report found. At least 49 Ethiopian journalists have been forced into exile since 2007, the third-highest total worldwide. CPJ research indicates that journalists in exile face major obstacles to their health and safety, and only 17 percent are able to remain in their profession.
The suppression of news was reflected by the information vacuum surrounding the lengthy illness that preceded the August death of longtime Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. The government, which insisted Meles was fine until his death, shut the one domestic newspaper that tried to examine his weeks-long absence from public view. Journalists said they are not optimistic that conditions will improve under the new leader, Hailemariam Desalegn. The government “wouldn’t want to allow any threat to the new leadership,” the journalist said. “The media is one of the biggest threats they would want to avoid.”
At least four journalists fled the country, according to CPJ’s 2012 exile report, joining at least 64 colleagues already in exile. Only Somalia has sent more journalists into exile since 2007. In addition to facing financial and legal worries, most exiled Iranian journalists live in fear of retaliation from their government, according to CPJ interviews. Several living in Turkey and Iraq have reported being followed or harassed by Iranian security agents.
Iran ranked fourth in the world for government censorship of the media, according to a CPJ analysis released in May. The mass imprisonment of journalists is just one of several tactics used by Iranian authorities to stifle dissent. Iran’s Internet censorship apparatus is adept at blocking millions of websites, thwarting anti-censorship programs, and intimidating reporters via social networks. The government also jams satellite signals, including those of the BBC Persian-language service.
With 19 unsolved journalist murders in the past decade, the country is ranked 10th on CPJ’s Impunity Index, which highlights countries where journalists are murdered regularly and the killers go free. The combination of violence and impunity drove six Pakistani journalists into exile, twice the number that fled the previous year, according to CPJ’s 2012 report on exiled journalists.
In March, Pakistan was among a handful of nations that tried to derail a U.N. plan to combat impunity worldwide. Although the plan moved forward, the country’s continued opposition could weaken its effect.
The new defamation law sets a maximum fine of 5 million rubles (US$150,000), an exponential jump from the 3,000-ruble fine that had been on the books previously. The fine is prohibitive for many independent and pro-opposition media in Russia, and the statute makes all media vulnerable to politically motivated prosecution. The Internet measure allows the authorities to block sites deemed to have “unlawful content.” The law’s vague definitions of unlawful content include “making war propaganda” and “inciting inter-ethnic hatred.” Journalists worry that the law will be used to silence critical views on the Internet, which has recently emerged as a home for independent news.
“As they say in Russia, the authorities are tightening the screws,” said Nadezhda Prusenkova, a spokeswoman for Novaya Gazeta, one of a handful of publications that investigates official corruption in Russia.
With 16 unsolved journalist murders in the past decade, Russia has the world’s ninth-worst record for combating deadly anti-press crime, according to CPJ’s Impunity Index. CPJ documented one work-related murder in 2012, along with numerous assaults, threats, and cases of intimidation. Kazbek Gekkiyev, a news anchor for state-owned VGTRK, was shot and killed in the North Caucasus city of Nalchik in December.
“Everyone is armed, so there is a constant threat,” said Abdulaziz Billow, Mogadishu-based correspondent for Iran’s Press TV. In such a climate, he said, reporting is limited. “If you investigate a person, the next day you can expect to get a bullet in the head.”
There is little to deter would-be assassins in Somalia, second-worst in the world in combating journalist murders, according to CPJ’s Impunity Index. Not a single journalist murder has been successfully prosecuted since 1992, according to CPJ research. “People who kill journalists continue to walk freely in town the next day,” Billow said. “Without functioning government institutions, the killers of journalists are not prosecuted.”
Unchecked violence drove at least seven Somali journalists into exile, more than any other nation in the world, according to CPJ’s 2012 exile report. At least 78 journalists have fled Somalia since 2007, devastating the country’s press corps.
“When you try to take photos of violence, at any moment you could be killed either in shelling or crossfire,” said Sami al-Rifaie, 23, a citizen journalist who works outside the city of Homs. “On the other side, you have the government that is trying to find you, capture you, and punish you to make an example out of you for other activists.” Though CPJ research shows that government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are behind many of the fatalities in Syria, some recent attacks against journalists and news outlets seen as pro-government have been attributed to rebel forces.
Syria ranked third on CPJ’s list of most censored countries this year as the Assad government sought to suppress independent coverage of the uprising. In addition to disabling phone networks, electricity, and the Internet, the authorities have been implicated in malware attacks against reporters and have used torture to extract the online passwords of journalists. At least 15 journalists were imprisoned when CPJ conducted its worldwide census on December 1.
Kurdish journalists, charged with supporting terrorism by covering the views and activities of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party, made up the majority of the imprisoned journalists. They are charged under a broadly worded anti-terror law that allows the authorities to conflate reporting activities with engaging in a terrorist enterprise. More than three-quarters of the imprisoned journalists had not been convicted of a crime but were being held as they awaited resolution of their cases.
Erdoğan has made a habit of filing defamation lawsuits and lashing out publicly at critics in the press and calling on media owners and editors to rein them in. “We are at the mercy of the government,” said one journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “If I write something that [Erdoğan] gets mad about, he can get me fired the day after.” In this context, self-censorship is the key to remaining employed and out of jail.
The Communist Party-dominated government controls all traditional news outlets in Vietnam; the authorities meet weekly with top newspaper editors to prescribe the news agenda and identify banned topics. “In Vietnam, there are a lot of issues that are not right–corruption, social issues, political problems–that journalists are not allowed to write about,” said Huynh Ngoc Chenh, a retired senior editor at Thanh Nien newspaper and a blogger.
Blogs and other online news outlets, once a relatively vibrant place for critical viewpoints, are the new targets of government censorship. Recent measures aimed at stifling online press freedom have included heightened surveillance of blogs, laws barring the posting of information viewed as a threat to national security or unity, and the deployment of security officials who pose online as ordinary Internet users and harshly criticize and harass bloggers, CPJ research found. A draft executive decree, if passed, would force international technology companies to set up data centers and offices in Vietnam, which analysts say would erode the security of IP addresses and make critical writers even more vulnerable.
Karen Phillips is a freelance writer working in New York. She previously served in CPJ’s Journalist Assistance and Americas programs and is the author of the 2011 CPJ special report, “After the Black Spring, Cuba’s New Repression.”