The Debate

The Press Freedom Index

Recent Features

The Debate

The Press Freedom Index

Reporters Without Borders has released its latest press freedom list. It was a tough year in Asia for the media.

Reporters Without Borders released their 10th annual Press Freedom Index today, with this year’s list suggesting that Finland and Norway have the world’s freest media.

“This year’s index sees many changes in the rankings, changes that reflect a year that was incredibly rich in developments, especially in the Arab world,” the organization said on releasing the report. “Many media paid dearly for their coverage of democratic aspirations or opposition movements. Control of news and information continued to tempt governments and to be a question of survival for totalitarian and repressive regimes. The past year also highlighted the leading role played by netizens in producing and disseminating news.”

The highest ranked country in the Asia-Pacific was New Zealand, at 13th place, followed by Japan in 22nd place (a little generous considering that despite Japan arguably having relatively little direct official harassment, it has still operated a restrictive, self-censoring kisha kurabu or “reporters club” system), and Australia at No. 30.

Second from bottom was North Korea in 178th (although it may at least be making some progress with the Associated Press opening a bureau in Pyongyang), then Turkmenistan in 177th, Iran at 175 and China at 174.

China’s crackdown on the media in 2011 has been much commented on, and comes as part of a broader drive against dissenting views that has included the jailing of activists, tougher rules on social networking sites and significant shows of force in response to rumors early last year of a possible push for a Jasmine revolution in China.

Will things improve in 2012? According to Kelley Currie, a democratization analyst with the Project 2049 Institute with a close interest in China, the answer is “no.”

“I think 2012 will continue the negative trend for press freedom in China. With the leadership transition in full swing and the latest dictates from the Communist Party for the media to ‘stick to the main line’ and strengthen their propaganda work, the Chinese press will see its operating space continue to be constrained,” she told me.

“Tibet has been closed to foreigners for the fifth year in a row, this time for a month, and access was already difficult. It seems we are right now in one of those cycles where the control apparatus is gaining on or catching up with technological changes that it had previously struggled to manage effectively.”

Currie added that the Party is also very much focused on “shaping the messages coming out of popular social media venues.”

“The new real name registration requirements on weibo (micro-blogging) services will potentially diminish their role in pushing the boundaries for freedom of expression,” she said. “But these requirements also serve as a pointed reminder for otherwise apolitical netizens that the Chinese Internet nannies are watching.”

This bleak view was in keeping with Reporters’ own assessment of the global media landscape.

“[P]ro-democracy movements that tried to follow the Arab example were ruthlessly suppressed. Many arrests were made in Vietnam (172nd). In China, the government responded to regional and local protests and to public impatience with scandals and acts of injustice by feverishly reinforcing its system of controlling news and information, carrying out extrajudicial arrests and stepping up Internet censorship,” today’s report noted.

For those wondering, the United States also took a tumble, from 20th place last year to 47th, mostly, the report says, because of the “many arrests of journalists covering Occupy Wall Street protests.”