Special report from Thuy Phan
NEW YORK - Eritrea has replaced North Korea in last place in an index measuring the level of press freedom in 169 countries throughout the world that is published today by Reporters Without Borders for the sixth year running. There is nothing surprising about this, Reporters Without Borders said. Even if we are not aware of all the press freedom violations in North Korea and Turkmenistan, which are second and third from last, EritreaEurope - in which the top 14 countries are located - no region of the world has been spared censorship or violence towards journalists. Of the 20 countries at the bottom of the index, seven are Asian Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Laos, Vietnam, China, Burma, and North Korea, five are African Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Somalia and Eritrea, four are in the Middle East Syria, Iraq, Palestinian Territories and Iran, three are former Soviet republics Belarus, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and one is in the Americas Cuba. We are particularly disturbed by the situation in Burma 164th, Reporters Without Borders said. The military junta's crackdown on demonstrations bodes ill for the future of basic freedoms in this country. deserves to be at the bottom. The privately-owned press has been banished by the authoritarian President Issaias Afeworki and the few journalists who dare to criticise the regime are thrown in prison. We know that four of them have died in detention and we have every reason to fear that others will suffer the same fate. Outside
Journalists continue to work under the yoke of harsh censorship from which nothing escapes, not even small ads. We also regret that China 163rd stagnates near the bottom of the index. With less than a year to go to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the reforms and the releases of imprisoned journalists so often promised by the authorities seem to be a vain hope. Military coups that were supposed to restore democratic order in Thailand 135th and Fiji 107th in fact led to a deterioration in the situation of the news media. The Bangkok-based media continue to be relatively free, but the military prevented the deposed prime minister's supporters from launching a TV station, and several website editors and bloggers were arrested. In Fiji, there were several weeks of tension between the army and journalists, and a foreign reporter was expelled. Thereafter, the pressure focused on those voicing criticism online. Pakistan 152nd continues to get a low ranking. All authority is concentrated in the army, led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999. The privately-owned TV stations were prevented from working freely and dozens of reporters were beaten and arrested during a crisis precipitated by Musharraf's dismissal of the supreme court president. War is largely responsible for the low position assigned to some countries. The increase in fighting in Somalia 159th and Sri Lanka 156th has made it very hard for journalists to work. Several have been killed and censorship was stepped up as clashes became frequent.
The belligerents refuse to recognise journalists' rights and accuse them of supporting the other side. In Afghanistan 142nd, the threats initially came from the Taliban and their allies. An Italian reporter's driver and fixer were beheaded by one of Mullah Omar's lieutenants, while several radio stations were attacked by armed groups. Weakened by the fighting and corruption, the government showed signs of nervousness. Several journalists were arrested by the intelligence services on trumped-up charges. As predicted last year, Nepal 137th has surged more than 20 places in the ranking. The end of the war and the return to democratic rule resulted in a revival of basic freedoms and created new space for the media. But ethnic violence in the south of the country exposed journalists to new dangers. Cambodia 85th climbed a few rungs thanks to the government's decision to decriminalize press offences. No journalist was imprisoned. But some journalists were targeted by death threats, especially when they covered corruption. Philippines 128th had fewer murders than in previous years. And President Gloria Arroyo's associates brought fewer defamation actions against journalists and news media. 7 After falling steadily in the index for the past three years, the G8 members have recovered a few places. France 31st, for example, has climbed six places in the past year.
French journalists were spared the violence that affected them at the end of 2005 in a labour conflict in Corsica and during the demonstrations in the city suburbs. But many concerns remain about repeated censorship, searches of news organisations, and a lack of guarantees for the confidentiality of journalists' sources. There were slightly fewer press freedom violations in the United States 48th and blogger Josh Wolf was freed after 224 days in prison. But the detention of Al-Jazeera's Sudanese cameraman, Sami Al-Haj, since 13 June 2002 at the military base of Guantanamo and the murder of Chauncey Bailey in Oakland in August mean the United States is still unable to join the lead group. Italy 35th has also stopped its fall, even if journalists continue to be under threat from mafia groups that prevent them from working in complete safety. Japan 37th has seen a letup in attacks on the press by militant nationalists, and this has allowed it to recover 14 places. These developments are good news, Reporters Without Borders said. Perhaps the repeated calls to these democracies to behave in an exemplary manner has finally borne fruit. But we must remain careful and vigilant. Nothing can be taken for granted and we hope this trend will continue or even accentuate near year. We regret all the same that only two G8 members, Canada 18th and Germany 20th, managed to be among the top 20. Russia 144th is not progressing. Anna Politkovskaya's murder in October 2006, the failure to punish those responsible for murdering journalists, and the still glaring lack of diversity in the media, especially the broadcast media, weighed heavily in the evaluation of press freedom in Russia.
The Internet is occupying more and more space in the breakdown of press freedom violations. Several countries fell in the ranking this year because of serious, repeated violations of the free flow of online news and information. In Malaysia 124th, Thailand 135th, Vietnam 162nd and Egypt 146th, for example, bloggers were arrested and news websites were closed or made inaccessible. We are concerned about the increase in cases of online censorship, Reporters Without Borders said. More and more governments have realised that the Internet can play a key role in the fight for democracy and they are establishing new methods of censoring it. The governments of repressive countries are now targeting bloggers and online journalists as forcefully as journalists in the traditional media. At least 64 persons are currently imprisoned worldwide because of what they posted on the Internet. China maintains its leadership in this form of repression, with a total of 50 cyber-dissidents in prison. Eight are being held in Vietnam. A young man known as Kareem Amer was sentenced to four years in prison in Egypt for blog posts criticising the president and Islamist control of the country's universities. Reporters Without Borders compiled this index by sending a questionnaire to the 15 freedom of expression organisations throughout the world that are its partners, to its network of 130 correspondents, and to journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists. It contained 50 questions about press freedom in their countries. The index covers 169 nations. Other countries were not included because of lack of data.