The 10 Worst Offenders of 1998

Nigeria's General Sani Abacha

Five years into his dictatorship, Abacha has escalated his outrageous assault on the country's once-thriving independent press and reneged on his promise to return the country to democracy. His brutal tactics keep 21 Nigerian journalists behind bars: Nigeria now holds more journalists in prison than any other African nation. The February murder of Guardian editor Tunde Oladepo, in front of his wife and children, and the April life sentence meted out to Diet editor Niran Malaolu were warnings to journalists not to criticize Abacha's stage-managed referendum to secure his succession unopposed.

Sani Abacha

Burma's Senior General Than Shwe

Than Shwe presides over the cosmetically renamed State Peace and Development Council, but a junta is still a junta, and this stifling regime has changed little since the military seized power in 1988. Burma is a nightmare for free expression. Fax machines, photocopies, and computer modems are illegal. There are no independent newspapers. Foreign broadcasts are frequently jammed. In this climate of oppression, the Burmese people are kept in the dark about even the nature of their own government.

Than Shwe

Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko

Ignoring international protests of repeated press freedom violations, Lukashenko wages an ongoing, Soviet-style campaign against independent and foreign media in Belarus. His March directive "On Enhancing Counter-Propaganda Activities Towards Opposition Press" forbids state officials to make any documents available to independent media and bans government advertising in all but state-run venues. Lukashenko's routine suppression of the press is typified by the censorship and shutdown of the independent newspaper Svaboda (Freedom). A staged trial of ORT (Russian television) personnel in Minsk sentenced them to silence--or two years in prison.

Alexander Lukashenko

Cuba's President Fidel Castro

Despite implicit promises to Pope John Paul II that there would be greater room for freedom of expression, Castro continues his control over all media outlets and his harsh treatment of independent journalists, who are routinely detained, arrested and beaten, or forced into exile, especially before major political events. In a new effort to staunch the flow of information from the island, Castro created a special task force within the State Security Agency to muzzle the independent press. Journalists try to file stories by phone with colleagues abroad in order to communicate with the outside world, but the Castro regime routinely monitors journalists' calls and interrupts telephone service.

Fidel Castro

Indonesia's President Suharto

With Indonesia's economy in free fall, Suharto continues to run roughshod over the media to prevent open, independent coverage of business and politics. Journalists have been arrested, harassed, and threatened by the military and driven into hiding. Despite this persecution, Indonesian journalists are still attempting to provide broad coverage of the rising opposition to Suharto. But publications that once dared to report on the Suharto clan's financial dealings remain closed by state order. Meanwhile, cronyism endures, exacerbating the economic crisis, and reporters are fearful that digging too deeply into the country's financial troubles could cost them their jobs--or their lives.


Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov

The self-proclaimed "father of all Turkmen" rules his country like the old-style totalitarian, cult-of-personality Soviet dictator he is--making Turkmenistan the most repressive of the former Soviet states. A pervasive culture of fear stifles all dissent. Reporters for Radio Liberty (RL), the only alternative non-state source of information in the Turkmen language, are routinely harassed, beaten and forced into exile, and in recent months several have been imprisoned by Niyazov's state security forces. Despite his record, Niyazov has been feted by President Clinton, Vice President Gore and others seeking access to Turkmenistan's vast natural gas and oil reserves.

Saparmurat Niyazov

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi

Lauded by U.S. policy makers as one of the new generation of African leaders for his ostensive contributions to the democratization of Africa, Meles is in fact an autocrat who attempts to suppress all press criticism of his regime. His deliberate campaign of detention and harassment of Ethiopia's independent press has spurred scores of journalists to flee the country. In 1997 alone he imprisoned 16 journalists, many of whom are being held without charge. Journalists continue to be targeted by police and threatened with prosecution by a partisan judiciary.

Meles Zenawi

Tunisia's President Zine Abdine Ben Ali

Ben Ali's decade of rule has reduced the Tunisian press to one of the most restricted in the Arab world. Journalists face swift reprisal for even the most benign independent reporting of political affairs in the Tunisian police state. They are dismissed from their jobs, denied accreditation, and barred from leaving the country for anything that is perceived as critical coverage. As a result, self-censorship has become virtually institutionalized. The foreign press is also targeted: Ben Ali has expelled four correspondents since 1991, and foreign news entering Tunisia is sytematically censored.

China's President Jiang Zemin

Jiang's one-party state continues to control all forms of media, effectively making independent reporting impossible. Press that fail to toe the Communist Party line remain subject to harsh censure. All Internet communications by local and foreign news media are monitored and subject to state censorship. The release of two famous dissidents after intense international pressure suggests a mild thaw in the climate for free expression, but it is far too early to celebrate a Beijing Spring. For reform to be meaningful, the 10 journalists still in prison in China must be freed.

Jiang Zemin

Jordan's Prime Minister Abd al-Salam al-Majali

In little more than a year in office Majali has mounted a harsh offensive against Jordan's outspoken independent press, known for its aggressive coverage of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, the economy, alleged government corruption, and human rights abuses. Last year, Majali's cabinet enacted draconian amendments to the press law, decimating the independent weekly press just before parliamentary elections. This brazen manipulator muzzles the media through intimidation, by arresting and prosecuting outspoken journalists, and by censorship.

Abd al-Salam al-Majali