Freedom of the press is something taken for granted in the West, but not so in much of the Middle East, Africa and Asia where journalists frequently take enormous risks doing their job.
Dawit Isaak hadn’t counted on being imprisoned without trial for the past 13 years in Eritrea for reporting on efforts to advance democracy in his nascent, eight-year-old country.
Muhammad Bekzhanov, editor of Uzbekistan’s Erk (Freedom) newspaper sought asylum in Ukraine in the late 1990s. He hadn’t expected to be extradited back to Tashkent where he was tortured into confessing that he had been responsible for a series of bombings, and sentenced to 13 years in prison. In 2012, just days before he was due to be released, he was sentenced to a further four years and eight months for disobeying prison officials.
Eskinder Nega didn’t imagine being sentenced in 2012 to 18 years in prison in Ethiopia after publishing an article criticizing his government’s use of an Anti-Terror Proclamation to silence critics. He was convicted under the same law.
These journalists and scores of others have run up against the greatest single inhibitor of press freedom: authoritarian governments that seek to control news content.
Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy is one of four Al Jazeera journalists currently in Egyptian jails, charged with conspiring with a terrorist organization.
On Saturday – World Press Freedom Day – Mr. Fahmy will be honoured as the 16th winner of the Press Freedom Award by the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom.
“When the journalist becomes the story rather than reporting it, you ask yourself why this happened and who is responsible for detaining you in the terrorism wing of Egypt’s most notorious prison,” Mr. Fahmy said this week in a note smuggled out of the prison.
Also on Press Freedom Day, the Egyptian prosecutor will decide whether to free another Al Jazeera journalist, Abdullah Elshamy, who has been held without charge since August and has been on hunger strike for more than 100 days.
Cases like these are the reason global press freedom fell last year to its lowest level in over a decade, says the latest annual report from Freedom House, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization founded by Eleanor Roosevelt.
Hopes raised by the Arab Spring were further dashed last year by major regression in Egypt, Libya and Jordan, the report said, and significant setbacks also occurred in Turkey, Ukraine, and a number of countries in East Africa.
The result is that only one in seven people live in countries where the press is really free – where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.
Egypt suffered one of the region’s worst setbacks in 2013, the report found, with its level of press freedom falling below even that of the final years of the regime of Hosni Mubarak.
Under the presidency of Mohammed Morsi, the country’s elected Muslim Brotherhood president, “the first half of the year was characterized by the media’s extreme polarization along ideological and political lines, as Islamist outlets became platforms for the government and secular media railed against the president,” the report concluded.
“After Morsi’s ouster by the military in July,” the report continued, “the government suspended the new constitution and launched a systematic crackdown on Islamist media, shutting down television and print outlets and targeting and arresting both local and foreign journalists who attempted to cover pro-Morsi protests.
“Five journalists were killed at the hands of the military in July and August,” Freedom House noted. “At the end of the year, most news outlets were sympathetic to the military government and failed to provide objective reporting or diverse viewpoints on the crisis.”
But Egypt isn’t the least free country when it comes to the press.
The world’s eight worst-rated countries, according to Freedom House, are the same eight as was the case a year ago: Belarus, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
In these states, independent media are either non-existent or barely able to operate. The only acceptable press acts as a mouthpiece for the regime; citizens’ access to unbiased information is severely limited; and dissent is crushed through imprisonment, torture and other forms of repression.