Press freedom on the wane, media watchdog warns

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – Rwanda and Syria joined a list of the 10 most repressive countries toward journalists alongside North Korea, Myanmar, China and Iran, according to a global media watchdog which warned Tuesday that the crackdown on reporters in authoritarian countries is worsening. Reporters Without Borders said press freedom in the 10 countries, including Yemen, Sudan and Eritrea, continues to deteriorate. «It is getting harder to say which is worse than the other,» the group said, with all 10 persecuting the media and blocking news and information to their citizens. The Paris-based organization said Cuba was not in the bottom 10 for the first time since the index was created in 2002, due mainly to the release of 14 journalists and 22 activists over the summer. But it said that political dissidents and journalists still have to deal with censorship and repression by the Communist government on a daily basis. Reporters Without Borders’ annual ranking of press freedom in 178 countries praised six Northern European countries – Finland, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland – for topping the index since it was created in 2002 and setting an example for respecting journalists and protecting the media from judicial abuse. But it warned that the European Union risks losing its position as world leader in respecting freedom of the press, noting that while 13 of the EU’s 27 members are in the top 20, some of the other 14 are very low in the rankings, including Italy at 49, Romania at 52 and Greece and Romania tied at 70. «The defense of media freedom continues to be a battle – a battle of vigilance in the democracies of old Europe and a battle against oppression and injustice in the totalitarian regimes still scattered across the globe,» Reporters Without Borders Secretary-General Jean-Francois Julliard said in the report. He said the fate of human rights activists, journalists and bloggers «who bravely defend the right to speak out… is our constant concern.» He reiterated the organization’s call for China to release Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, «the symbol of the pressure for free speech building up in China, which censorship for the time being is still managing to contain.» «And we warn the Chinese authorities against taking a road from which there is no way out,» Julliard said. According to the report, Asia’s four communist regimes are among the 15 lowest-ranked countries, with North Korea at 177th place, China at 171, Vietnam at 165 and Laos at 168. «China, despite its dynamic media and Internet, remains in a low position because of nonstop censorship and repression, notably in Tibet and Xinjiang,» it said, while in «hellish totalitarian North Korea,» where Kim Jong-il has set up his son’s succession, «crackdowns have become even harsher.» The 2010 index highlights major differences in press freedom in four major emerging economies: China, India, Brazil and Russia. Thanks to favorable legislative changes, Brazil rose 12 places to 58, while India dropped 17 places to 122, mainly due to extreme violence in Kashmir, the report said. In Russia, at 140, «the system remains as tightly controlled as ever, and impunity reigns unchallenged in cases of violence against journalists,» it said. Reporters Without Borders said political violence produced «very troubling tumbles in the rankings.» Thailand lost 23 places and is now at 153 after two journalists were killed and 15 wounded covering the army crackdown on the anti-government «Red Shirt» movement in Bangkok. The Philippines fell 34 places to 156 following last November’s massacre of 30 media workers traveling in an election convoy in southern Maguindanao, allegedly at the hands of the governor’s supporters. It was the deadliest single attack on reporters in the world. Rwanda fell 12 places to 169 following «the closure of leading independent publications, the climate of terror surrounding the presidential election, and Umuvugizi deputy editor Jean-Leonard Rugambage’s murder in Kigali,» the report said. He was shot dead outside his home hours after the paper published an online article linking Rwandan intelligence to the shooting of a former army chief in South Africa. «Journalists are fleeing the country because of the repression in an exodus almost on the scale of Somalia’s,» Reporters Without Borders said. In Syria, which dropped eight places to 173, and Yemen, down three places to 170, the report said «press freedom is fast shrinking away» and «arbitrary detentions are still routine, as is the use of torture.» For the fourth straight year Eritrea was at the bottom of the list, at 178.

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