Reporters without borders (press release)

19/10/09

Bulgaria has fallen nine places in Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom rankings in 2009, and has the lowest press freedom ranking in the European Union.

The country ranked 59th in 2008, and is now 68th. It had been falling steadily since being included in the ranking in 2007, Reporters Without Borders said.

Launching the eighth annual world press freedom index, Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said that it was “disturbing to see European democracies such as France, Italy and Slovakia fall steadily in the rankings year after year”.

“Europe should be setting an example as regards civil liberties. How can you condemn human rights violations abroad if you do not behave irreproachably at home? The Obama effect, which has enabled the United States to recover 20 places in the index, is not enough to reassure us,” Julliard said.

Reporters Without Borders compiles the index every year on the basis of questionnaires that are completed by hundreds of journalists and media experts around the world.

This year’s index reflects press freedom violations that took place between September 1 2008 and August 31 2009.

A Reporters Without Borders statement said that Europe long set an example in press freedom but several European nations had fallen significantly in this year’s index.

Even if the first 13 places are still held by European countries, others such as France (43rd), Slovakia (44th) and Italy (49th) continue their descent, falling eight, 37 and five places respectively.

In so doing, they have given way to young democracies in Africa (Mali, South Africa and Ghana) and the western hemisphere (Uruguay and Trinidad and Tobago).

Journalists are still physically threatened in Italy and Spain (44th), but also in the Balkans, especially Croatia (78th), where the owner and marketing director of the weekly Nacional were killed by a bomb on October 23 2008.

But the main threat, a more serious one in the long term, comes from new legislation, Reporters Without Borders said.

Many laws adopted since September 2008 have compromised the work of journalists. One adopted by Slovakia (44th) had introduced the dangerous concept of an automatic right of response and has given the culture minister considerable influence over publications, the organisation said.

For the first time since 2002, the press freedom index’s top 20 is not quite so European.

Only 15 of the 20 leading countries are from Europe, compared with 18 in 2008.

Eleven of these 15 countries are European Union members. They include the top three, Denmark, Finland and Ireland.

The biggest one-year fall of any EU member was Slovakia’s. It sank 37 places to be 44th. This was mainly the result of government meddling in media activities and the adoption in 2008 of a law imposing an automatic right of response in the press, Reporters Without Borders said.

Two candidates for EU membership also experienced suffered dramatic falls. They were Croatia (78th), which fell 33 places, and Turkey (122nd), which fell 20 places.

The impact of organised crime and the targeting of journalists account for the falls suffered by both Bulgaria and Italy (49th), which got the worst ranking of the EU’s six original founders.

“Il Cavaliere’s harassment of the media, increased meddling, mafia violence against journalists who expose its activity and a bill that that would drastically curb the media’s ability to publish official phone tap transcripts explain why Italy fell for the second year running,” Reporters Without Borders said.

France (43rd) did not fare much better, falling eight points because of judicial investigations and arrests of journalists and raids on news media, and also because of meddling in the media by politicians, including president Nicolas Sarkozy, the organisation said.

The region’s most repressive countries, Uzbekistan (160th) and Turkmenistan (173rd), had not evolved significantly and their journalists are still subject to censorship, arbitrary treatment and violence, according to Reporters Without Borders.

“The dialogues they have begun with the European Union and other partners do not seem to have borne fruit in terms of human rights and there is every reason to fear that the international community will sacrifice free expression in the race for energy security. Both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are rich in natural resources including hydrocarbons.”

Russia (153rd) tumbled 12 places, below Belarus for the first time.

“The reasons for this fall, three years after Anna Politkovskaya’s murder, include continuing murders of journalists and human rights activists who help to inform the population, and physical attacks on local media representatives. They also include the return with increasing force of censorship and reporting taboos and the complete failure to punish those responsible for the murders.”

Reporters Without Borders said that indicators point to a deterioration in the press freedom situation in almost all of the former Soviet Republics except Georgia (81st) and, to a lesser extent, Belarus (151st), whose government has initiated a cautious and so far limited improvement in its relations with the press as part of a renewed dialogue with the EU. It is hard at this stage to predict whether this ripple on the surface will swell or fade away.

Georgia was able to leap 39 positions because it did not fight a war during the period covered even if political tension continued to have an impact on the news media.

Georgia’s South Caucasian neighbour, Armenia (111th), fell sharply because of several cases of physical violence against journalists and political tension that continued to affect the media and society.

There was no change in neighbouring Azerbaijan, where the situation continued to be really worrying, the organisation said.

This was clear from the Reporters Without Borders monitoring of press coverage during the presidential election campaign in November 2008 and from the National Television and Radio Council’s decision to ban foreign radio stations (BBC, Radio Free Europe and Voice of America) from broadcasting on local frequencies.

The decline in press freedom continued in Central Asia, especially in Kyrgyzstan (125th) and its enormous, gas-rich neighbour Kazakhstan (142nd), which both fell more than 15 places.

“Kazakhstan distinguished itself by the number of libel suits brought against independent and opposition newspapers and its recourse to the time-honoured practice of awarding such colossal sums in damages that the publication is forced to close.”

Kazakhstan’s worst-ever ranking since the index began in 2002 was also due to intimidation and violence against journalists and the prolongation of a law that subjects websites to the same restrictions as the traditional media, Reporters Without Borders said.

In Kyrgyzstan, concerns were fuelled by an increase in physical attacks and intimidation of journalists that led some to flee the country, one-sided coverage of an election campaign, and pressure on foreign radio stations, which need a prior accord with the authorities to be able to broadcast locally.

Turkey’s big fall was due to a surge in cases of censorship, especially censorship of media that represent minorities (above all the Kurds), and efforts by members of government bodies, the armed forces and judicial system to maintain their control over coverage of matters of general interest.

In Croatia, which hopes to join the EU very soon, certain aspects of Serbo-Croatian relations are a source of tension and are off-limits for the media. Journalists who violate the taboo are often the targets of violence. Organised crime groups have also been responsible for physical attacks on journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders.