North Korea tops CPJ’s list of “10 Most Censored Countries”
New York, May 2, 2006–North Koreans live in the most censored country in the world, a new analysis by the Committee to Protect Journalists has found.The world’s deepest information void, communist North Korea has no independent journalists, and all radio and television receivers sold in the country are locked to government-specified frequencies. Burma, Turkmenistan, Equatorial Guinea, and Libya round out the top five nations on CPJ’s list of the “10 Most Censored Countries.”
In issuing its report to mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3, CPJ called state-sponsored censorship one of the most urgent threats facing journalists worldwide. CPJ studied press freedom conditions in dozens of countries around the world to assess the access people have to independent information and the methods leaders use to stifle the news.
CPJ regional staff used their extensive knowledge of local press conditions and applied a rigorous set of criteria to determine the rankings of the most censored list. The criteria included state control of all media, the existence of formal censorship regulations, the use by the state of violence, imprisonment and harassment against journalists, jamming of foreign news broadcasts, and restrictions on private Internet access.
The other countries on the list are Eritrea, Cuba, Uzbekistan, Syria, and Belarus.
“People in these countries are virtually isolated from the rest of the world by authoritarian rulers who muzzle the media and keep a chokehold on information through restrictive laws, fear, and intimidation,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper.
Patterns that emerge from CPJ’s analysis include:
•Total control.Print and electronic media in all 10 countries are under heavy state control or influence. Some countries allow a few privately owned outlets to operate but most of these are in the hands of regime loyalists. In Libya, there are no independent broadcast or print media, an anachronism even by Middle East standards. Equatorial Guinea has one private broadcaster; its owner is the president’s son. In Burma, citizens risk arrest for listening to the BBC in public.
• One-man-shows. Most of the countries on CPJ’s list are ruled by one man who has remained in power by manipulating the media and rigging any elections that are held. The media foster a cult of personality. On state television in Turkmenistan, “President for Life” Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov’s golden image is constantly displayed in profile at the bottom of the screen. State-run radio in Equatorial Guinea has described President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo as “the country’s God.”
• Use of the “Big Lie.” In North Korea, all “news” is positive. According to the country’s rigidly controlled media, North Korea has never suffered famine or poverty, and citizens would willingly sacrifice themselves for their leader. The official Korean Central News Agency said that leader Kim Jong Il is so beloved that after a deadly munitions train explosion in a populated area, people ran into buildings to save the ubiquitous portraits of the “Dear Leader” before they rescued their own family members.
• Zero tolerance for negative coverage. In Uzbekistan, a government crackdown forced more than a dozen foreign correspondents to flee abroad after they covered a massacre of antigovernment protesters in Andijan in May 2005. Reporters covering opposition to Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s recent re-election were jailed and charged with crimes such as “hooliganism.” In Cuba, the government organizes “repudiation acts” for recalcitrant journalists; demonstrators surround the journalist’s home and prevent people from coming or going.
• Cynical disregard for people’s welfare. Governments suppress news of the dangers and hardships faced by their citizens. North Korea covered up a famine that affected millions. Burma stifled coverage of the effects of the tsunami that hit the country in December 2004.
“By any international standard, the practices of these governments are unacceptable,” said Cooper. “We call on the leaders of these most censored countries to join the free world by abandoning these restrictive actions and allowing journalists to independently report the news and inform their citizens.”
Here are summaries of the Most Censored Countries:
1. NORTH KOREA
Leader: Kim Jong Il, chairman, National Defense Commission, in power since his father Kim Il Song’s death in 1994
How censorship works: North Korea has wedded the traditional Confucian ideal of social order to the Stalinist model of an authoritarian communist state to create the world’s deepest information void. All domestic radio, television, and newspapers are controlled by the government. Radio and television receivers are locked to government-specified frequencies. Content is supplied almost entirely by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). It serves up a daily diet of fawning coverage of “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il and his
official engagements. The country’s grinding poverty or famines are never mentioned. Only small numbers of foreign journalists are allowed limited access each year, and they must be accompanied by “minders” wherever they go.
Lowlight: After a deadly munitions train explosion in April 2004 in Ryongchon near the Chinese border, KCNA reported that citizens displayed the “spirit of guarding the leader with their very lives” by rushing into burning buildings to save portraits of Kim “before searching for their family members or saving their household goods.” The international press, meanwhile, was barred from the scene, where more than 150 died and thousands were injured.
Leader: Than Shwe, who took over as chairman of the military junta known as the State Peace and Development Council in 1992 after the resignation of 1988 coup leader General Saw Maung
How censorship works: The junta owns all daily newspapers and radio, along with the country’s three television channels. Media dare not hint at, let alone report on, antigovernment sentiments. Burma’s few privately owned publications must submit content to the Press Scrutiny Board for approval before publishing; censorship delays mean that none publishes on a daily basis. In 2005, the junta took control of Bagan Cybertech, Burma’s main Internet service and satellite-feed provider. Citizens have been arrested for listening to the BBC or Radio Free Asia in public. Entry visa requests by foreign journalists are usually turned down except when the government wants to showcase a political event.
Lowlights: An article in the June 4, 2005, edition of New Light of Myanmar (Burma) titled “Have positive attitude in broadcasting news” explains the government’s approach to media: “The Myanmar people do not wish to watch, read, or listen to corrupt and lopsided news reports and lies. The Myanmar people even feel loathsome to some local media that are imitating the practice of featuring corrupt and lopsided news and lies.” The Voice, a Rangoon-based weekly, was suspended in May 2005 as punishment for an innocuous front-page story about Vietnam’s withdrawal from Burma’s New Year water festival, which the junta found embarrassing.
Leader: Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov, elected 1991 and declared President for Life in 1999
How censorship works: Niyazov has isolated the country from the rest of the world and created a cult of personality declaring himself “Turkmenbashi,” father of the Turkmen. The state owns all domestic media and Niyazov’s administration controls them by appointing editors and censoring content. Niyazov personally approves the front-page content of the major dailies, which always include a prominent picture of him. In 2005, the state closed all libraries except for one that houses the president’s books, and banned the importation of foreign publications. The state media heap fulsome praise on Niyazov as they ignore important stories on AIDS, prostitution, unemployment, poverty, crime, and drugs. A handful of local and foreign correspondents work for foreign–primarily Russian–news agencies, but their freedom to report is minimal.
Lowlight: State television displays a constant, golden profile of Niyazov at the bottom of the screen. Newscasters begin each broadcast with a pledge that their tongues will shrivel if their reports ever slander the country, the flag, or the president.
Turkmenistan Locater Map
4. EQUATORIAL GUINEA
Leader: President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, in power since a coup in 1979
How censorship works: Criticism of Obiang’s brutal regime is not tolerated in the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa. All broadcast media are state-owned, except for RTV-Asonga, the private radio and television network owned by the president’s son, Teodorino Obiang Nguema. A handful of private newspapers officially exist but rarely publish due to financial and political pressure. An exiled press freedom group ASOLPEGE-Libre says the only publication that appears regularly is a pro-government magazine published in Spain and financed by advertising revenue from companies operating in Equatorial Guinea, “mainly North American oil companies.” The group says the government has forced all private companies to pay for advertising spots on state broadcast media. It describes state broadcasters as “pure governmental instruments in the service of the dictatorship, dedicated uniquely and exclusively to political narcissism and the ideological propaganda of the regime in place.” The U.S. State Department reported in 2005 that foreign celebrity and sports publications were available for sale but no newspapers, and that there were no bookstores or newsstands. Foreign correspondents have been denied visas or expelled without official explanation.
Lowlights: State-run Radio Malabo broadcasts songs warning citizens that they will be crushed if they speak against the regime. During parliamentary elections in 2004, state media called opposition activists “enemies” of the state. State radio has described Obiang as “the country’s God” who has all power over men and things.
Leader: Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, unchallenged in power since a bloodless 1969 coup.
How censorship works: Libya’s media are the most tightly controlled in the Arab world. The government owns and controls all print and broadcast media, an anachronism even by regional standards. The media dutifully reflect state policies and do not allow news or views critical of Qaddafi or the government. Satellite television and the Internet are available, but the government blocks undesirable political Web sites. The Internet is one of the few avenues for independent writers and journalists, but the risks are exceedingly high. Dayf al-Ghazal al-Shuhaibi, who wrote for London-based opposition Web sites, was found shot in the head in Benghazi last year. No one has been charged with the murder, which has sent an unmistakable message to would-be critics. In addition, Internet writer Abdel Razek al-Mansouri was jailed in reprisal for online writings critical of the government.
Lowlight: In 1977, Qaddafi laid out his ideas for Libya’s cultural revolution in The Green Book. On the press he wrote, “The press is a means of expression for society: it is not a means of expression for private individuals or corporate bodies. Therefore, logically and democratically, it should not belong to either one of them.”
Leader: President: Isaias Afewerki, elected by the national assembly in 1993
How censorship works: Eritrea is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa without a single private media outlet. More than four years after a vicious crackdown shuttered a fledgling independent press, the government’s repressive policies have left the tiny Horn of Africa nation largely hidden from international scrutiny and with almost no local access to independent information. A privileged few have access to the Internet. The handful of foreign correspondents in the capital, Asmara, are subject to intensive monitoring by authorities.
Lowlight: At least 15 journalists have been jailed or otherwise deprived of their liberty. Most are held incommunicado in secret detention centers. When CPJ sought information about the imprisoned journalists in fall 2005, Information Minister Ali Abdou told Agence France-Presse, “It’s up to us what, why, when, and where we do things.”
Leader: President Fidel Castro, who has run a one-party state since seizing power in a 1959 revolution
How censorship works: The Cuban constitution grants the Communist Party the right to control the press; it recognizes “freedom of speech and the press in accordance with the goals of the socialist society.” The government owns and controls all media outlets and restricts Internet access. News is carried on four television channels, two news agencies, dozens of radio stations, at least four news Web sites, and three main newspapers representing the views of the Communist Party and other mass organizations controlled by the government.
The media operate under the supervision of the Communist Party’s Department of Revolutionary Orientation, which develops and coordinates propaganda strategies. Cuba remains one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists, second only to China, with 24 independent reporters behind bars. Those who try to work as independent reporters are harassed, detained, threatened with prosecution or jail, or barred from traveling. A small number of foreign correspondents report from Havana but Cubans do not see their reports. Officials grant visas to foreign journalists selectively, often excluding those from outlets deemed unfriendly.
Lowlight: The government organizes demonstrations known as “repudiation acts” outside the homes of independent journalists. Government supporters congregate around the homes, intimidate those inside and prevent them from leaving or receiving visitors.
Leader: President Islam Karimov, elected 1991; presidential term extended by referendums in 1995 and again in 2002.
How censorship works: Karimov has re-established a Soviet-style dictatorship that relies on brutal political intimidation to silence journalists, human rights activists, and the political opposition. Karimov’s regime uses an informal system of state censorship to prevent the domestic media from reporting on widespread police torture, poverty, and an Islamic
opposition movement. Uzbekistan has also distinguished itself among the former Soviet republics as the leading jailer of journalists, with six behind bars at the end of 2005.
Lowlight: After troops killed hundreds of antigovernment protesters in the city of Andijan in May 2005, Karimov’s regime cracked down on foreign media. The BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Institute for War & Peace Reporting were forced to close their Tashkent bureaus. A dozen foreign correspondents and local reporters working for foreign media had to flee the country.
Uzbekistan locater map
Leader: President Bashar al-Assad, who took over upon his father’s death in 2000
How censorship works: The media are under heavy state control and influence. Some newspapers and broadcast outlets are in private hands but are owned by regime loyalists, or are barred from disseminating political content. Some private and party newspapers offer mild criticism of some government policies or the Baath party, but they are largely toothless. State papers and broadcasters remain unflinchingly supportive of the regime. The press law maps out an array of restrictions against the media, including a requirement that periodicals obtain licenses from the prime minister, who can deny any application not in the “public interest.” The regime has harassed critics through arrests or warnings.
Lowlights: State repression has spawned newspapers so bland that even a top government official, the late Interior Minister Ghazi Kenaan, once called Syria’s news coverage “unreadable.” Despite efforts to privatize the press, newspapers that overstep the mark in their criticism are shut down or their editions confiscated.
Leader: President Aleksandr Lukashenko, elected 1994; last re-elected in March 2006 in polls the European Union called “deeply flawed.”
How censorship works: Most broadcast and print outlets are owned by the government, and they are effusive in their praise of Lukashenko. Nominally independent radio and television stations avoid politically sensitive subjects. The state has shuttered dozens of independent newspapers in recent years, and the few that remain have been subjected to a government onslaught: Lukashenko’s administration has pressured state printing houses not to print critical newspapers, barred the post office and state newspaper distributor from distributing independent publications, seized entire press runs of independent newspapers, and set prison penalties of up to five years for criticizing the president.
Lowlight: More than two dozen domestic and foreign journalists were jailed during the tumultuous presidential campaign, most while covering antigovernment rallies staged after the vote. Reporters were often charged with “hooliganism” for being at the rallies.
Belarus locater map
CPJ staff judged countries according to 17 benchmarks. CPJ established the criteria after consultation with experts in the fields of press freedom, human rights, and media law. In order to appear on this list, countries had to meet at least nine of the 17 criteria. The benchmarks included: absence of independent media; existence of formal censorship regulations; state control of all media; state-sponsored violence against journalists; jamming of foreign news broadcasts; restrictions on Internet access; limits on journalists’ mobility; interference in the production and distribution of publications; and existence of laws forbidding criticism.