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Freedom of Press Around the World

August 30, 2014

The fine print
How do nations fare when it comes to freedom of media and attitudes towards journalists? Well, not surprisingly, the lofty ideals you read about in the Constitution are often different from the ground reality in many countries.

United States of America
Freedom of press and freedom of speech are guaranteed by the American Constitution’s famous First Amendment. Though libel is still a criminal offense in many US states, courts in America have through history time and again ruled in favor of expanding the rights of journalists.

The results are impressive.
In a landmark verdict on 9 March 1964, the US Supreme Court overturned an earlier ruling in the New York Times vs Sullivan case by an Alabama state court that had awarded $500,000 to a Montgomery city commissioner named L. B. Sullivan, who had sued the New York Times for libel over an ad the paper had carried in 1960 in support of the civil rights movement. The Supreme Court held that public discussion was a “political duty” and must be “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open”.

Interestingly, the US federal government offers little protection to shield journalists from revealing information gathered while working. But a majority of individual states offer such protection. Overall, strong and independent media are a hallmark of American democracy.

United Kingdom
Britain has a robustly free media and one of the world’s most admired public broadcaster — the BBC. However, in the last couple of years, because of the infamous phone hacking scandal, regulation of the press is much talked about in the UK.

The News of the World (NoW), a popular British tabloid, was shut down in 2011 by its owner, the media mogul Rupert Murdoch, after allegations surfaced that journalists of the paper were hacking citizen’s phones to get information.

A trial followed and on 25 June 2014, the ex-NoW editor and Prime Minister David Cameron’s former head of communications, Andy Coulson was found guilty of conspiring to intercept voicemails between 2000 and 2006. Coulson has now been convicted.

The outrage over the scandal has made press regulation a hot-button issue. Traditionally, self-regulation has been the mantra of the British press, with the Press Complaints Commission acting as the forum to address grievances. But in the post-NoW era, a new regulatory framework for the media is just around the corner. What form it may take though, is anybody’s guess.

In the older Soviet times, the media were under tight government control until Mikhail Gorbachev relaxed some of strict rules binding journalists in the mid-1980s. Though Russian laws provide for freedom of press, the reality is less pleasant.

There have been allegations of intimidation of journalists and that the Russian government exercises undue influence over large sections of the media. The government, of course, denies all such claims.

One chilling case that got worldwide attention was that of the award-winning journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead on 7 October 2006 near her home in Moscow. Politkovskaya was a staunch critic of Russia’s military action in Chechnya. Though two men were sentenced to life imprisonment on 9 June 2014 for her murder, it is believed that the masterminds of the crime are still at large.

Though the Constitution of China guarantees freedom of speech, publication, etc., in practice the ruling Communist Party exercises firm control over all forms of media and news. Sensitive topics such as Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen Square cannot be discussed freely. While China has seen far-reaching economic—and to some extent social—changes in the last two decades, there has been little progress on the freedom of expression front. Journalists critical of the government line even on non-taboo issues can find cops knocking on their door.

That’s what happened to Chen Yongzhou, a correspondent with the New Express (Guangdong), who was arrested in October 2013 after he wrote about alleged corruption at a local government-owned construction equipment firm.

State censorship is often extended to the Internet. In 2012 the websites of two major global news networks — the New York Times and Bloomberg — were blocked after they carried stories on the private wealth of the topmost leadership of the Communist Party.

India has an impressively diverse and multilingual media which are among the few success stories of journalism in the developing world. There is freedom to print or air opinions and stories that are critical of the government of the day. The media are in expansion mode and a booming industry.

Yet, as media watchdogs will tell you, there is much to be concerned about. The single biggest assault against the Indian press occurred during the infamous emergency imposed by the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi in 1975, when the freedom to report freely and fearlessly was suspended along with other rights of citizens. While such a blatant clampdown against the press has not recurred, instances of vicious—and even fatal—attacks against journalists are not uncommon.

In a crime that sent shockwaves through journalism circles in Mumbai, Jyotirmoy Dey, a senior crime and investigative reporter working for the Mumbai tabloid Mid Day, was shot dead by suspected underworld gangsters on 11 June 2011. The case got murkier when another journalist Jigna Vora, then with the newspaper Asian Age, was arrested in connection with the murder.

In 2013 alone, according to the media watchdog thehoot.org, eight Indian journalists were killed. The fact that Maoists were suspected to be behind two of the killings, and most of the victims were stringers (not affiliated to any publication or channel) and working in Uttar Pradesh (arguably India’s most lawless state) does not make it a less grim statistic. Among the victims was Sai Reddy, a journalist from Chhattisgarh who was killed on 6 December 2013 by suspected Maoists.

There are other concerns, among them the influence that big corporate houses exert directly or indirectly on the Indian media. Then there is the phenomena of ‘paid news’, with political operatives allegedly ‘buying’ news, especially in regional media outlets, to create a favorable impression towards specific candidates during election season.

Despite these very real challenges, it is not farfetched to say that irrespective of which coalition is in power at the Centre, the Indian state today realizes that suppression of the media is counterproductive for the country’s image and the healthy functioning of democracy.

A difficult place for journalists at the best of times, things have become bleaker for them in the last few years as the role of the state in Pakistan itself comes under question. The prestige of the media group, a journalist works for, is no longer a deterrent to those state or non-state actors determined to silence voices of dissent in this troubled country.

The seriousness of the problem can be gauged by what happened to Hamid Mir, a senior editor with Geo TV and one of Pakistan’s better known television anchors. Mir, a critic of the Pakistani establishment, had in interviews to other media groups openly claimed that he could become a target of state agencies. Just a few weeks later, on 19 April 2014, he was shot multiple times in Karachi by unidentified gunmen, an attempted assassination that sent shockwaves in Pakistan. Luckily, he survived despite three bullet wounds.

Another popular news anchor Raza Rumi was shot on 28 March 2014. He escaped unscathed, but the firing claimed the life of his driver. Earlier in January 2014, three staff members of the Express Media Group were shot dead in Karachi.

Despite these brazen attacks, there are many courageous Pakistani journalists, both in the print and electronic media, who against all odds carry on their work of asking tough questions to the establishment.

Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Brazilian Constitution. A new law in 2012 making it easier to access public information made things better for the media.

However, instances of journalists being intimidated are an area of concern. During the Independence Day protests in several Brazilian cities on 7 September 2013, there were reports of violence against journalists. According to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, the Brazilian military police fired teargas at journalists such as Marlene Bergamo, a photojournalist, and reporter Luciano Nascimento.

Similarly, according to ABRAJI, the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism, at least 19 foreign and Brazilian journalists were attacked between June 12 and June 23, 2014, in Brazil in the run up to the football World Cup. Most of the attacks occurred, when the journalists were covering protests by citizens.

The first newspaper was set up in Mexico way back in the 17th century. Articles 6 and 7 of the Mexican Constitution guarantee freedom of expression and in 2007 defamation was decriminalized at the federal level. But Mexico remains a dangerous place for journalists, in part due to powerful criminal gangs operating in the country.

In 2008, four people were given 11-year sentences for the 2004 killing of photojournalist Gregorio Hernandez in Escuinapa, Sinaloa. This was seen as a significant step, but deadly violence against mediapersons has continued.

In a gruesome turn of events, the body of Jorge Torres Palacios, a journalist working in Acapulco city, was found on 2 June 2014—four days after he was kidnapped from his house by unidentified gunmen. The body bore signs of torture. Palacios had written about armed violence in the area and reported on protests against police high-handedness.

Turkey had the dubious distinction of being the country with the most journalists — 40 — in prison in 2013 for the second consecutive year, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists. That damning statistic, rather than the country’s constitutional guarantees of press freedom — which are, in any case, diluted by other provisions in law that put restrictions on journalism perceived to be investigative in nature or critical of the state — gives a realistic picture of press freedom in the country. There are numerous examples of the challenges journalists and media practitioners face in Turkey.

On 10 April 2014, the cartoonist Mehmet Düzenli was sentenced to three months in jail on charges of insulting a controversial religious preacher. In March 2014, the Turkish government blocked popular social networking sites such as Twitter and YouTube citing ‘national security’ concerns. The ban on YouTube stayed for two months.

Iran is among the most challenging places for journalists to work in. The law offers little protection to them. Since 2012, the Iranian government has made it mandatory for media outlets to reveal sources for information published. Censorship is the norm and newspapers can be easily shut down; around 10 newspapers were banned in 2009.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Iran was the world’s second worst jailer of journalists in 2013, behind Turkey.

Those in jail include Mohammad Davari, an award-winning journalist; Omid Behroozi, who reported for a website and is in jail since 2011; Seyed Maleki, a blogger in jail since 2009; and Mohammad Kaboudvand, the managing editor of Payam-e-Mardom, who was put in jail in 2007.

There was a severe crackdown on journalists in 2009, the year of large-scale and unprecedented protests in Iran after a disputed election result. For the dozens of Iranian journalists in jail and their families as well as freedom of press, the future remains bleak.

January and February 2011 were among the most dramatic months in recent Egyptian history. Tens of thousands of Egyptians rallied against President Hosni Mubarak, compelling him to finally leave office. Social media played an important role in mobilizing people to protest. A tantalizing new dawn awaited Egypt. But after the military again seized power and ousted the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in July 2013, it was no longer clear where the country was heading.

There was cautious optimism after a new Constitution, adopted by a referendum in January 2014, guaranteed freedom of information. Former army chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi won the presidential polls in May 2014. But a big question mark remains over the ability of the Egyptian government to stomach criticism.

In a blow to the freedom of media in Egypt, three Al Jazeera English journalists were sentenced to jail on 23 June 2014 on charges that included aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and false news reporting.

Peter Greste, a Latvian-Australian journalist and Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian Egyptian one were sentenced to seven years in prison; Baher Mohamed got a 10-year sentence. While covering a protest, Mohamed had reportedly picked up a spent bullet casing from the ground. This became grounds for ‘possession of ammunition’ charges and three more years in prison than his two colleagues.

North Korea
Press freedom is an oxymoron in the context of North Korea. Forget writing anything critical about the North Korean regime, even listening to unauthorized foreign broadcasts is reason enough to put someone in jail — or worse.

The ruling party has a stranglehold over all forms of media and ordinary North Koreans can access very little information apart from government propaganda. It’s virtually impossible for foreign journalists to get information about what exactly goes on in this extremely isolated nation. In case they are allowed to enter the country, foreign journalists’ movements are closely monitored and interactions with ordinary people strictly moderated.

When North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s uncle Jang Song-thaek was arrested and then executed on 12 December 2013, in an extraordinary Orwellian attempt to erase history, images of him in past photographs and films were selectively deleted. It was as if Song-thaek never existed.

Internet and Social Media Freedom
While there are few government restrictions on social media networks in the United States, a striking development after mid-2013 has been the revelations about widespread surveillance carried out by the National Security Agency (NSA) on the internet and social media activities in America and abroad. These revelations came to light after NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked information about the snooping to select news outlets.

The Snowden leaks also uncovered the role of the British General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) which allegedly enabled authorities in the UK to install probes on cables under the oceans. The content of the data captured would be stored for a few days or more to scan it ostensibly for law enforcement and counter-terrorism purposes. Like the NSA revelations, the actions of the GCHQ caused an uproar in the west. Suspicions about unchecked government surveillance of social media have peaked in the US and UK after the Snowden bombshell.

In Russia, there are no specific laws that protect online expression modes. In order to get the same rights as traditional media, websites have to be registered as mass media.

China regularly clamps down on online activism and net users’ attempts to access uncensored information. Baidu, China’s most popular search engine, manipulates search results by favoring content that is approved by the state.

The misuse of social media in India by vested interests in fomenting violence and social tension came to the fore when mobs went on a rampage after an objectionable Facebook post with morphed images of eminent personalities was widely circulated in Pune. The result: the tragic death of an innocent Muslim techie, Mohsin Shaikh, in Pune on 2 June 2014.

One of the triggers for the deadly 2013 communal riots in Muzaffarnagar in the state of Uttar Pradesh was the mischievous online circulation of a fraudulent video claiming to show the lynching of a Hindu man. On the plus side, however, social media activism has strengthened Indian democracy by providing alternative narratives that are overlooked by the mainstream media.

In Pakistan, thousands of websites including YouTube were blocked in 2012 for their anti-Islamic content. Cyber cafes have been targets of Islamic militants on other occasions.

While Brazil generally doesn’t block access to the internet for its citizens, it issues frequent requests to social media firms to remove content. Journalists, both traditional and online, are frequently in the danger zone in crime-prone Mexico, but online campaigning and social media are useful tools in the hands of activists.

Turkey’s government has often clashed with social media sites. In March 2014 the government blocked access to YouTube and Twitter. The official reasons given were “precautionary administrative measure” and “national security” concerns.

Despite several and successful efforts by successive Iranian governments to crack down on the Internet and social media networks, they remain popular forums for citizens, especially youngsters, to express themselves. The authorities’ attitudes can be summed up in the arrest in May 2014 of six young Iranians who were seen dancing on YouTube to Pharrell Williams’ number “Happy”. Luckily for them, they were soon released, with even Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani distancing himself from the arrests.

Social media were one of the drivers of Egypt’s ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011. Young Egyptians used social media to connect and gather in massive numbers in the first two months of that fateful year. In fact, some commentators labeled the protests that overthrew Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule as the Facebook and Twitter revolution. While others played down the impact of Internet-based mobilization, there is little doubt that governments in Egypt will be acutely conscious of the power of social media.

The information black hole that allows very little news to come out of North Korea swallows the internet as well. Very few citizens have access to the net to begin with, and criticism of the state in any form of media is unheard of — so the question of online activism is a non-starter.