World Press Freedom Day 2015 marks worst level of freedom in a decade

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New Delhi/ Islamabad/ Dhaka: The United Nation’s theme for World Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2015, is “Let Journalism Thrive! Towards better reporting, gender equality and media safety in the digital age”. 

This comes amidst the acknowledgement that journalism has never been more dangerous as a profession and journalists have never felt more unsafe. A report by the human rights group Freedom House says press freedom around the world has plummeted to the worst level in a decade, with the United States and China among the countries tightening the noose. 

The World Press Freedom Index 2015 issued by the Reporters without Borders has ranked India 136 among 180 countries worldwide in terms of press freedom, while Bangladesh ranked 146, and Pakistan ranked 159. Here’s a look at the worst constraints posed to the media in these three countries, that make the subcontinent such a dangerous place for the media.   

To spread awareness about the importance of freedom of the press and to remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression, May 3 is marked as ‘The World Press Freedom Day’. The day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in December 1993, following the recommendation of UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) General Conference. Since then, May 3 is celebrated worldwide as World Press Freedom Day.

Two days before World Press Freedom Day, US President Barack Obama praised the role of journalists who “give all of us, as citizens, the chance to know the truth about our countries, ourselves, our governments.” He said, “Journalists are harassed, sometimes even killed. Independent outlets are shut down. Dissent is silenced. And freedom of expression is stifled. 

“That makes us better. It makes us stronger. It gives voice to the voiceless, exposes injustice, and holds leaders like me accountable,” Mr Obama said. 

The United Nations commemorated World Press Freedom Day 2015 two days ahead of the designated date, on 1 May, with a moment of silence for journalists killed in the line of duty, and drew attention to the need for greater gender equality in the media and the safety of journalists in the digital age, where protection from surveillance will become increasingly important.

UN Under-Secretary-General for Public Information, Cristina Gallach, noted that 2015 is a historic year during which the United Nations celebrates its 70th anniversary and is “also the year when the international community must take once-in-a-generation decisions on sustainable development goals, on climate change, and on financing for development.” Ms. Gallach said: “It is fitting to reaffirm today the relevance of the right to freedom of expression, without which we would not be able to achieve many of the goals for 2015.”

In his remarks, General Assembly President Sam Kutesa said that in 1993, the Assembly established the Day. Some 22 years later, delegations were gathered to express our utmost respect to the many courageous men and women who brave hazardous terrain and dangerous environments to tell the important stories the world needs to hear.

“These men and women go about their critical work in often inhospitable environments. From the comfort and safety of our homes and workplaces, we can learn about important issues around the world, including some dark and troubling events,” he said, stressing that journalists bridge the information gap and through that work, we learn about important discoveries and innovations shaping our world.

“Without them, we would have difficulty knowing about positive developments in the furthest corners of the world. In the same way, we would never hear the cries that are being silenced or the injustices being committed, said President Kutesa, adding: “We may never know of abuses being perpetrated, hostages being taken or lives brutally stolen.”

Noting that already this year, more than 40 journalists and media staff have been killed around the world, with many more are being held hostage or simply disappeared, he said the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is clear: the freedom for all to seek, receive and impart information, regardless of borders should not be tampered with.

“I urge all Member States to do their utmost to uphold these rights for the press and media staff. We must strive to guarantee these universal standards,” he said.

GROUND REALITY

Here’s how major countries of the world stack up in the relative freedom they allow their media: Two sets of data – the world press freedom index and journalist killings around the world – are necessary to throw light on the state of the freedom of the press.

Reporters without borders (RWB), a non-profit organisation that tracks attacks on press freedom, has ranked every country according to its press freedom index.

The Scandinavian countries – Finland, Norway and Denmark – topped the list. China, Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia were placed at the end of the list with many Asian and African countries where press freedom is dwindling.   

However, there has been a worrying decline in general when compared to last year’s index due to information suppression because of various conflicts in 2014 such as the ones in the Middle East, Syria and Iraq.

SITUATION IN INDIA

India’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index has not improved over the years. It has always scored a three-digit ranking according to data analysed by Hindustan Times. 

According to RWB, the following attacks on media last year were identified as the major issues for India’s low score.

1. Indian government’s ban on Al-Jazeera for five days for displaying maps in which India’s border with Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir did not correspond to its territorial claims.

2. Indian authorities’ search aimed at members of the Karen community in the Andaman Islands, for those who helped two French documentarians gain access to the prohibited lands of the Jarawa tribe.

3. Attacks on journalists in Jammu and Kashmir during coverage of the 2014 parliamentary election.

4. Arrest of Jitendra Prasad Das, a subeditor with the Oriya-language daily Samaj in Cuttack, Odisha, for publishing a picture of the Prophet Mohammed.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent non-profit organisation that promotes press freedom worldwide, has ranked every country according to the number of journalists killed in the line of duty till May 2015. CPJ has been publishing the list since 1992.

Twenty-one journalists were killed this year. France tops the list because of the killing of eight journalists from Charlie Hebdo in a terror attack.

Since 1992, 1,123 journalists have been killed in the line of duty. While Iraq tops the list with 166 journalist killings, India is at 9th position with 34 deaths.

SITUATION IN BANGLADESH

Bangladesh has slipped down two places in World Press Freedom Index 2015 of Reporters Without Borders. Bangladesh ranked 146 among 180 countries this year while it was in the 144th position among 178 countries last year. Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) has in a statement urged the government and other stakeholders to create a congenial atmosphere where the media can play its role freely and impartially.

The Daily Star reports that although Bangladesh’s position remained unchanged at 115 among 199 countries and territories studied in 2014 by the US based Freedom House, the report said the media are “partially free” in the South Asian country. A total of 63 were rated “free” for the news media, while 71 were “partly free” and 65 “not free”. Only 14 percent of the world’s inhabitants live in countries with a free press, it said.

According to a local Human Rights Organisation- Ain O Salish Kendra, this year 106 incidents took place in Bangladesh, between January and March when journalists were harassed, tortured or received threats from government officials, law enforcers and others and cases were filed against the media for publishing news.

The rights body says two journalists were killed while one died after being tortured by police and another went missing in 2014.

A total of 239 newsmen were tortured last year. Of the victims, 21 were tortured by law enforcers while 56 were criminals and 78 were tortured by different political party men, ASK said in its 2014 annual report.

At least 10 journalists were assaulted allegedly by the ruling party men during the recent city corporation elections in Dhaka and Chittagong, while some reporters were robbed of their mobile phones, handbags and cash. Also, polling officers, law enforcers and the ruling party men allegedly prevented reporters, photographers and cameramen from entering polling centres.

In a joint message, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Unesco Director-General Irina Bokova and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said “…journalism must be able to thrive, in an enabling environment in which they [journalists] can work independently and without undue interference and in conditions of safety.”

“The world has recently witnessed horrendous attacks against journalists- at least one journalist is killed each week, in conflict and non-conflict zones. We must redouble efforts to enhance the safety of journalists and put an end to impunity, and this is the goal of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists,” they said.

TIB expressed its concern and frustration over the “unexpected interference” on media, torturing journalists and barring them from discharging their duties by a section of law enforcers.

The watchdog also expressed concerned over the killing of bloggers by religious fundamentalists, murder of journalists Sagar and Runi two years back and other security concerns related to journalists.

TIB Executive Director Iftekharuzzaman said the government, on the one hand, enacted the Rights to Information Act-2009 and the Whistleblower Protection Act-2011 in its last tenure, but on the other hand it amended the section 57 of Information and Communication Technology (amendment) Act-2013 and added some provisions to the National Broadcast Policy, which has posed threats to the freedom of expression of media and individuals.

He condemned the “unwritten embargo imposed discriminately” on some journalists to enter the office of the prime minister. Iftekharuzzaman also urged journalist leaders to enact and implement an ethical code of conduct for professional development and to ensure objectivity and impartiality in journalism. 

SITUATION IN PAKISTAN

Media in Pakistan reports that professional journalists there are paying a heavy price in blood in their attempts to keep Pakistani citizens informed in an increasingly polarised and violence-prone country. The World Press Freedom Index 2015 issued by the RWB has ranked Pakistan 159 out in 180 countries in the list, corroborating the view that Pakistan continues to be one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. 

The same group placed Pakistan at 158 last year in its annual report. Uncertain security conditions, risk of terrorism related activities and overwhelming political influence have been all cited as the reasons behind Pakistani media’s lack of freedom.

According to Christophe Deloire, the head of Paris-based RWB or Reporters Sans Frontiers, world-over, “There has been an overall deterioration linked to very different factors, with information wars, and action by non-state groups acting like news despots.” 

On the other hand, a non-governmental organisation, Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF), declared 2014 as one of the most difficult years for Pakistani media because of threats from militant groups, law enforcement agencies, and political parties at a time the Pakistani media remained bitterly divided. ARY News reports that according to PPF, around eight media personnel, including three journalists, were killed during the year while at least 35 media practitioners were injured during 2014.

It states that a report published by International News Safety Institute (INSI) said, Journalism has never been more dangerous and journalists have never felt more unsafe. The report revealed that several militant groups using new technologies to control the information battlefield have declared war on journalists in Pakistan. Despite the fact that technology helps journalists to easily transfer information, and in some situations is keeping them safer, on the other side, it is making them increasingly vulnerable to powerful entities that seek to track and harm them.

The RWB 2015 World Press Freedom Index stated that there were 3,719 violations of freedom of information in 180 countries in 2014- eight per cent more than a year earlier. All parties in conflicts raging in the Middle East and Ukraine were waging “a fearsome information war” where media personnel were directly targeted to be killed, captured or pressured to relay propaganda, it said.

The Islamic State group active in Syria and Iraq, Boko Haram in northern Nigeria and Cameroon, and criminal organisations in Italy and Latin America all used “fear and reprisals to silence journalists and bloggers who dare to investigate or refuse to act as their mouthpieces,” said the watchdog, also known by its French initials RSF.

North Africa and the Middle East contained notable “black holes” in which “entire regions are controlled by non-state groups in which independent information simply does not exist,” the group said.

The criminalisation of blasphemy endangers freedom of information in around half of the world’s countries,” the report said, noting that religious extremists sometimes also go after journalists or bloggers they believe do not sufficiently respect their religion.

RSF’s ranking put Iran, China, Syria and North Korea among the countries with the very worst levels of press freedom out of the 180 evaluated.

Repression of journalists in Ukraine during its early-2014 uprising against its pro-Kremlin president, and in Turkey during anti-government demonstrations earned both spots in the bottom quarter of the table.

“Police misconduct” during the Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong earned that territory a slide to 70th position.

The best-rated nations were northern European states such as Finland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden, with New Zealand, Canada and Jamaica also making the top 10.

The United States ranked 49, three spots lower than in the previous report, in part because of what RSF said was the US government’s “war on information” against WikiLeaks and others.

In South America, Venezuela stood out with a 20-notch fall to a ranking of 137 due to the National Bolivarian Guard opening fire on clearly identified journalists during demonstrations. Libya dropped 17 places to 154 because of the national chaos that has seen seven journalists murdered and 37 kidnapped.

Russia slipped to the 152nd spot after introducing “another string of draconian laws,” website blocking and the extinction of independent media. “Press freedom… is in retreat on all five continents,” RSF declared, claiming that its indicators were “incontestable”.

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