Truth as the first casualty

February 1, 2013
Sarah Benton

In this posting, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) commentary on the 2013 index first; some selected rankings, second; last, RWB’s case reports from Israel and Palestine during the last 18 months.

2013 WORLD PRESS FREEDOM INDEX: Dashed hopes after Spring

January 2013

After the “Arab springs” and other protest movements that prompted many rises and falls in last year’s index, the 2013 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index marks a return to a more usual configuration. The ranking of most countries is no longer attributable to dramatic political developments. This year’s index is a better reflection of the attitudes and intentions of governments towards media freedom in the medium or long term.

The same three European countries that headed the index last year hold the top three positions again this year. For the third year running, Finland has distinguished itself as the country that most respects media freedom. It is followed by the Netherlands and Norway. Although many criteria are considered, ranging from legislation to violence against journalists, democratic countries occupy the top of the index while dictatorial countries occupy the last three positions. Again it is the same three as last year – Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea.

“The Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders does not take direct account of the kind of political system but it is clear that democracies provide better protection for the freedom to produce and circulate accurate news and information than countries where human rights are flouted,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “In dictatorships, news providers and their families are exposed to ruthless reprisals, while in democracies news providers have to cope with the media’s economic crises and conflicts of interest. While their situation is not always comparable, we should pay tribute to all those who resist pressure whether it is aggressively focused or diffuse.”

Coinciding with the release of its 2013 Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders is for the first time publishing an annual global “indicator” of worldwide media freedom. This new analytic tool measures the overall level of freedom of information in the world and the performance of the world’s governments in their entirety as regards this key freedom In view of the emergence of new technologies and the interdependence of governments and peoples, the freedom to produce and circulate news and information needs to be evaluated at the planetary as well as national level. Today, in 2013, the media freedom “indicator” stands at 3395, a point of reference for the years to come.

The indicator can also be broken down by region and, by means of weighting based on the population of each region, can be used to produce a score from zero to 100 in which zero represents total respect for media freedom. This produces a score of 17.5 for Europe, 30.0 for the Americas, 34.3 for Africa, 42.2 for Asia-Pacific and 45.3 for the former Soviet republics. Despite the Arab springs, the Middle East and North Africa region comes last with 48.5.

The high number of journalists and netizens killed in the course of their work in 2012 (the deadliest year ever registered by Reporters Without Borders in its annual roundup), naturally had a significant impact on the ranking of the countries where these murders took place, above all Somalia (175th, -11), Syria (176th, 0), Mexico (153rd, -4) and Pakistan (159th, -8).

From top to bottom
The Nordic countries have again demonstrated their ability to maintain an optimal environment for news providers. Finland (1er, 0), Netherlands (2nd, +1) and Norway (3rd, -2) have held on to the first three places. Canada (20th, -10) only just avoided dropping out of the top 20. Andorra (5th) and Liechtenstein (7th) have entered the index for the first time just behind the three leaders.

At the other end of the index, the same three countries as ever – Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea – occupy the last three places in the index. Kim Jong-un’s arrival at the head of the Hermit Kingdom has not in any way changed the regime’s absolute control of news and information. Eritrea (179th, 0), which was recently shaken by a brief mutiny by soldiers at the information ministry, continues to be a vast open prison for its people and lets journalists die in detention. Despite its reformist discourse, the Turkmen regime has not yielded an inch of its totalitarian control of the media.

For the second year running, the bottom three countries are immediately preceded by Syria (176th, 0), where a deadly information war is being waged, and Somalia (175th, -11), which has had a deadly year for journalists. Iran (174th, +1), China (173rd, +1), Vietnam (unchanged at 172nd), Cuba (171st, -4), Sudan (170th, 0) and Yemen (169th, +2) complete the list of the ten countries that respect media freedom least. Not content with imprisoning journalists and netizens, Iran also harasses the relatives of journalists, including the relatives of those who are abroad.

Big rises…
Malawi (75th, +71) registered the biggest leap in the index, almost returning to the position it held before the excesses at the end of the Mutharika administration. Côte d’Ivoire (96th, +63), which is emerging from the post-electoral crisis between the supporters of Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, has also soared, attaining its best position since 2003. Burma (151st, +18) continued the ascent begun in last year’s index. Previously, it had been in the bottom 15 every year since 2002 but now, thanks to the Burmese spring’s unprecedented reforms, it has reached its best-ever position. Afghanistan (128th, +22) also registered a significant rise thanks to the fact that no journalists are in prison. It is nonetheless facing many challenges, especially with the withdrawal of foreign troops.

…and big falls

Mali (99th, -74) registered the biggest fall in the index as a result of all the turmoil in 2012. The military coup in Bamako on 22 March and the north’s takeover by armed Islamists and Tuareg separatists exposed the media in the north to censorship and violence. Tanzania (70th, -36) sank more than 30 places because, in the space of four months, a journalist was killed while covering a demonstration and another was murdered.

Buffeted by social and economic protests, the Sultanate of Oman (141st) sank 24 places, the biggest fall in the Middle East and North Africa in 2012. Some 50 netizens and bloggers were prosecuted on lèse majesté or cyber-crime charges in 2012. No fewer than 28 were convicted in December alone, in trials that trampled on defence rights.

Journalists in Israel (112th, -20) enjoy real freedom of expression despite the existence of military censorship but the country fell in the index because of the Israeli military’s targeting of journalists in the Palestinian Territories.

In Asia, Japan (53rd, -31) has been affected by a lack of transparency and almost zero respect for access to information on subjects directly or indirectly related to Fukushima. This sharp fall should sound an alarm. Malaysia (145th, -23) has fallen to its lowest-ever position because access to information is becoming more and more limited. The same situation prevails in Cambodia (143rd, -26), where authoritarianism and censorship are on the increase. Macedonia (116th, -22) has also fallen more than 20 places following the arbitrary withdrawal of media licences and deterioration in the environment for journalists.

Varied impact of major protest movements
Last year’s index was marked by the Arab spring’s major news developments and the heavy price paid by those covering the protest movements. A range of scenarios has been seen in 2012, including countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, where regime change has taken place, countries such as Syria and Bahrain where uprisings and the resulting repression are still ongoing, and countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Oman, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, where the authorities have used promises and compromise to defuse calls for political and/or social and economic change.

Some of the new governments spawned by these protests movements have turned on the journalists and netizens who covered these movements’ demands and aspirations for more freedom. With legal voids, arbitrary appointments of state media chiefs, physical attacks, trials and a lack of transparency, Tunisia (138th, -4) and Egypt (158th, +8) have remained at a deplorable level in the index and have highlighted the stumbling blocks that Libya (131st, +23) should avoid in order to maintain its transition to a free press.

The deadliest country for journalists in 2012 was Syria (176th, 0), where journalists and netizens are the victims of an information war waged by both the Assad regime, which stops at nothing in order to crack down and impose a news blackout, and by opposition factions that are increasingly intolerant of dissent. In Bahrain (165th, +8) the repression let up slightly, while in Yemen (169th, +2) the prospects continue to be disturbing despite a change of government. Oman (141st, -24) fell sharply because of a wave of arrests of netizens.

Other countries hit by protests saw changes for the better and worse. Vietnam (172nd, 0) failed to recover the six places it lost in the previous index. The world’s second biggest prison for netizens, it has remained in the bottom ten. Uganda (104th, +35) has recovered a more appropriate position although it has not gone back to where it was before cracking down on protests in 2011. Azerbaijan (156th, +6) and Belarus (157th, +11) both fell last year after using violence to suppress opposition demonstrations and this year they just moved back towards their appalling former positions. Chile (60th, +20) is beginning to recover after plummeting 33 places to 80th in last year’s index.

Political instability puts journalists in the eye of the storm
Political instability often has a divisive effect on the media and makes it very difficult to produce independently-reported news and information. In such situations, threats and physical attacks on journalists and staff purges are common. Maldives (103rd, -30) fell sharply after the president’s removal in an alleged coup, followed by threats and attacks on journalists regarded as his supporters. In Paraguay (91st, -11), the president’s removal in a parliamentary “coup” on 22 June 2012 had a big impact on state-owned broadcasting, with a wave of arbitrary dismissals against a backdrop of unfair frequency allocation. Guinea-Bissau (92nd, -17) fell sharply because the army overthrew the government between the first and second rounds of a presidential election and imposed military censorship on the media. In Mali (99th, -74), a military coup fuelled tension, many journalists were physically attacked in the capital and the army now controls the state-owned media. This index does not reflect the January 2013 turmoil in the Central African Republic (65th, -3) but its impact on media freedom is already a source of extreme concern.

“Regional models” found wanting
In almost all parts of the world, influential countries that are regarded as “regional models” have fallen in the index. Brazil (108th, -9), South America’s economic engine, continued last year’s fall because five journalists were killed in 2012 and because of persistent problems affecting media pluralism. In Asia, India (140th, -9) is at its lowest since 2002 because of increasing impunity for violence against journalists and because Internet censorship continues to grow. China (173rd, +1) shows no sign of improving. Its prisons still hold many journalists and netizens, while increasingly unpopular Internet censorship continues to be a major obstacle to access to information.

In Eastern Europe, Russia (148th, -6) has fallen again because, since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency, repression has been stepped up in response to an unprecedented wave of opposition protests. The country also continues to be marked by the unacceptable failure to punish all those who have murdered or attacked journalists. The political importance of Turkey (154th, -6) has grown even more because of the armed conflict in neighbouring Syria but it has again fallen in the index. It is currently the world’s biggest prison for journalists, especially those who express views critical of the authorities on the Kurdish issue. There is no comparison with South Africa (52nd, -10), where freedom of information is a reality. It still has a respectable ranking but it has been slipping steadily in the index and, for the first time, is no longer in the top 50. Investigative journalism is threatened by the Protection of State Information Bill.

Democracies that stall or go into reverse
The situation is unchanged for much of the European Union. Sixteen of its members are still in the top 30. But the European model is unravelling. The bad legislation seen in 2011 continued, especially in Italy (57th, +4), where defamation has yet to be decriminalized and state agencies make dangerous use of gag laws. Hungary (56th, -16) is still paying the price of its repressive legislative reforms, which had a major impact on the way journalists work. But Greece’s dramatic fall (84th, -14) is even more disturbing. The social and professional environment for its journalists, who are exposed to public condemnation and violence from both extremist groups and the police, is disastrous.

Japan (53rd, -31) plummeted because of censorship of nuclear industry coverage and its failure to reform the “kisha club” system. This is an alarming fall for a country that usually has a good ranking. Argentina (54th, -7) fell amid growing tension between the government and certain privately-owned media about a new law regulating the broadcast media.

Press Freedom Index 2013
January 2013

Some rankings

Where there has been a significant change in a ranking, this follows the country’s name.

Top 10 countries

1) Finland; 2) Netherlands ); 3) Norway, 4) Luxembourg ; 5) Andorra ;  6) Denmark +4 (10); 7) Liechtenstein; 8) New Zealand +5 (13); 9) Iceland; 10) Sweden ;

Assorted others
28) UK ; 37) France; 32) United States +15 (47); 112) Israel -20 (92); 146) Palestine +7 (153); 158) Egypt +8 (166);

Bottom 10 countries
170) Sudan;  171) Cuba -4 (167);  172) Vietnam;  173) China;  174) Iran;  175) Somalia -11 (164);  176) Syria;  177) Turkmenistan;  178) North Korea; 179) Eritrea

Independent inquiry vindicates journalists over Ramallah violence

July 30, 2012

Reporters Without Borders expresses satisfaction with the recommendations and conclusions of the independent inquiry commission set up by the Palestinian president into police violence against demonstrators and journalists during protests in Ramallah on 30 June and 1 July.

On 17 July, two weeks after the inquiry commission, chaired by Munib Al-Masri, was created to look into the violence carried out during a visit by the Israeli deputy prime minister to Ramallah, Reporters Without Borders wrote to Saeed Abu Ali, the Palestinian Authority’s interior minister, requesting him to convey the commission’s preliminary conclusions (see below).

The report condemned the “unjustified” use of force and blamed the leadership of the security services, accusing them of a lack of professionalism. On the two days in question, police officers used disproportionate violence, despite facing no resistance.

Furthermore, the security forces failed to observe the rights of those who were taken into custody. Journalists and photographers were deliberately targeted, assaulted and at times arrested by police while they were doing their job.

It recommended that the Palestinian Authority summon senior officers before a competent judicial authority and take appropriate action if mistakes were made and abuses committed. If it emerges that the police officers who carried out the violence received no orders to do so, they should also be answerable for their behaviour before the courts.

The commission urged the Palestinian president to ban the involvement of police officers in plain clothes in peaceful demonstrations. Officers should be in uniform in order not to provoke over-reaction by the demonstrators.

Reporters Without Borders takes note of the report’s recommendations and will check that those responsible for assaults on journalists are brought before the appropriate judicial authorities. The press freedom organization points out that such abuses contravene freedom of information and the Palestinian people’s most basic rights of self-expression.

Following is the text of the letter sent to the interior minister, Saeed Abu Ali, on 17 July.

Interior Minister Saeed Abu Ali
Palestinian Authority

17 July 2012

Dear Interior Minister,

Reporters Without Borders, an international organization that defends freedom of information, would like to obtain information about the progress of the investigation that was ordered in response to the physical attacks on journalists by security officials on 30 June and 1 July.

Several reporters and photographers were attacked by security officials when they went to cover protests in Ramallah on 30 June against a proposed visit by Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz. The attacks were repeated the next day and the toll from the two days of violence was heavy.

Freelance journalist Mohamed Jaradat received a severe beating from four plainclothes policemen at around 6 p.m. on 30 June while covering a protest against the Mofaz visit. They confiscated his equipment and took him to a police station where be continued to be beaten. The assault continued although he kept repeating that he was a journalist and showed his press card to the policemen. He had to be treated in hospital for an injury to his left eye and multiple bruising. (photo MADA 2/07)

On 1 July, Reuters photographer Saed Al-Hawari was assaulted by plainclothes policemen, who tried to confiscate his camera. Freelance photographer Ahmed Musleh was attacked and briefly detained. Quds Media photogapher Ahmed Odeh’s equipment was seized. Al-Hayat Al-Jadeda photographer Issam Rimawi and reporter Mahmoud Harebat were also targeted.

After dozens of journalists demonstrated on 2 July in protest against this violence, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas asked you to set up an independent commission of enquiry with the task of identifying those responsible for these violations of freedom of information. Reporters Without Borders has taken note of this commitment.

Two weeks have gone by since this commission of enquiry was created and Reporters Without Borders would like to know its initial findings. Our organization will continue to pay close attention to this matter until those responsible for the violence are punished.

I thank you in advance for the attention you give to our request.


Olivier Basille

RWB condemns air strikes on nes media in Gaza City

November 18/19, 2013

Reporters Without Borders condemns Israeli air strikes targeting news organizations in Gaza City today and calls for an immediate end to such attacks. At least nine journalists were reportedly injured and several local and international media were prevented from operating.

“These attacks constitute obstruction of freedom of information,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “We remind the Israeli authorities that, under humanitarian law, the news media enjoy the same protection as civilians and cannot be regarded as military targets.

“Even if the targeted media support Hamas, this does not in any way legitimize the attacks. We call for a transparent investigation into the circumstances of these air strikes. Attacks on civilian targets are war crimes and serious violations of the Geneva Conventions. Those responsible must be identified.”

At around 2 a.m. today, Israeli warplanes fired several missiles at the Al-Shawa Wa Hassri Tower, a building in the Gaza City neighborhood of Rimal that houses local and international media organizations. Around 15 reporters and photographers wearing vests with the word “TV Press” were on the building’s roof at the time, covering the Israeli air strikes.

Five missiles destroyed the 11th-floor offices used by Al-Quds TV. The station said six journalists were injured, four of them Al-Quds employees – Darwish Bulbul, Khadar Al-Zahar, Muhammad al-Akhras and Hazem al-Da’our. The other two were identified as Hussein Al-Madhoun, a freelance photographer working for the Ma’an news agency, and Ibrahim Labed, a reporter for the Palestinian news agency SAFA. Zahar’s condition was described as critical after one of his legs had to be amputated.

At around 7 a.m., three Al-Aqsa TV employees were seriously injured when two missiles were fired at the Al-Shourouk building, also known as the “journalists’ building.” A spokesperson for the Israel Defence Forces said on the @IDFSpokesperson Twitter account that the air strike had targeted a Hamas communication centre.

Among the local and international media whose offices were damaged by Israeli missiles were Sky News Arabia, the German TV station ARD, the Arab TV stations MBC and Abu Dhabi TV, Al-Arabiya, Reuters, Russia Today and the Ma’an news agency.

Information was also one of the victims of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead against the Gaza Strip in December 2008 and January 2009 (read the RWB report). At the time, Reporters Without Borders condemned Israel’s decision to declare the Gaza Strip a “closed military zone” and deny access to journalists working for international media. The IDF also targeted pro-Hamas media during Operation Cast Lead.

Molotov cocktail attack on news agency’s Gaza City bureau

July 11, 2011

Reporters Without Borders condemns yesterday’s attack on the Gaza City bureau of the independent Palestinian news agency Ma’an. Eye-witnesses said unidentified assailants threw three Molotov cocktails at its offices, starting a fire that caused little damage and no injuries.

Police and security agents rushed quickly to the scene and began an investigation. But sources told Reporters Without Borders that nothing conclusive had been established.

A Ma’an representative told the press freedom organization: “We have received phone calls threatening us or criticizing our work but this is the first time our bureau has been the target of something as serious as this. I don’t think there was a particular reason. We have always covered sensitive stories and our method of working has not changed. I suspect that a small armed group was responsible but we will see the results of the investigation.”

Reporters Without Borders urges the Gaza authorities to establish the motive for attack, identify those responsible and bring them to justice. The Hamas government has a duty to ensure that journalists are safe and able to work in the Gaza Strip.

Created in 2005 and headquartered in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Ma’an puts out news reports in Arabic, Hebrew and English. Its website is a good source of information for Palestinians and journalists following events in the Palestinian Territories.

Three journalists killed in deliberate attacks by Israeli planes
November 21, 2012

Three journalists were killed yesterday, the seventh day of Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defence in the Gaza Strip. A tower block containing the offices of the French news agency Agence France-Presse in the Rimal district was also hit by an Israeli air strike.

Two Palestinian cameramen from the TV station Al-Aqsa, Mohamed al-Kaoumi and Hossam Salameh, were killed when their vehicle was hit by a missile fired from Israeli aircraft just after 6 p.m.

The two men were in Nasser Street in Gaza City on their way to the northern part of the city to film Palestinian victims of Israeli air strikes. An Israeli warplane aimed a missile directly at the Al-Aqsa crew’s vehicle, which was clearly marked with the word “media” in Arabic.

The executive director of Al-Quds educational radio, Mohammed Moussa Abu Eisah,was killed when his car was hit by an Israeli missile in the Gaza City district of Deir Al-Balah about 8 p.m.

An Israeli military spokeswoman, Avital Leibovich, said later that preliminary results of an investigation indicated that the three journalists were Hamas operatives.

Later in the evening, the block housing the offices of AFP was hit by three Israeli strikes. None of the agency’s journalists were hurt.

The Israeli military confirmed the eight-storey building’s seventh floor, which it said was believed to house a Hamas military operations room, was “surgically” targeted.

About 11 p.m., Israeli forces issued a statement on Twitter aimed at journalists in the area.

In an interview with Al-Jazeera three days ago, the Israeli government spokesman, Mark Regev, said Al-Aqsa journalists were not legitimate journalists in the same way as those from the BBC or Al-Jazeera.

Reporters Without Borders strongly condemns these deliberate attacks on those working for media organizations affiliated to, or with links to, Hamas, and also the statement by the Israeli government spokesman. The press freedom organization points out that, under humanitarian law, journalists are entitled to the same protection as civilians and should not be regarded as military targets.

The fact that they are considered to be propaganda outlets is not sufficient reason to treat them as military targets. Indeed, the commission of experts appointed by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to examine the NATO bombing campaign in 1999 ruled that journalists and media organizations were not legitimate targets for “merely disseminating propaganda”.

“Attacks on civilian targets are war crimes and serious violations of the Geneva Conventions. Those responsible must be identified,” Christophe Deloire, Reporters Without Borders secretary general, said last weekend.

Since the start of Operation Pillar of Defence against the Gaza Strip, 11 journalists have been wounded:

— Six were hurt when Israeli planes fired missiles at the Al-Shawa Wa Hassri Tower in Gaza City at 2 a.m. on 18 November.
— Five hours later three Al-Aqsa TV employees were wounded when two missiles hit the Al-Shourouk building, located in the Rimal district in the western part of the city and known as the “journalists’ building”.

— Two more were hit in another Israeli salvo against the Al-Shourouk building. They were identified as Ahmed Al-Ridi, a cameraman for Al-Arabiya, and Ahmed Al-Achkar, a cameraman for the local station Houna Al-Qods TV. According to medical staff at the Al-Shifa hospital, they were only slightly hurt and were discharged two hours later, after treatment. An Israeli military spokesman said the planes’ target was Ramez Harb, a senior communications official in the Al Quds Brigades, the military wing of Islamic Jihad.

A dozen media organization offices were hit on 18 and 20 November.

Hamas bans Palestinian journalists from co-operating with Israeli media
December 28 2012, Updated January 02 2013.

Reporters Without Borders is shocked to learn that the Gaza Strip’s Hamas-led government has banned Palestinian media and journalists from cooperating with the Israeli media because of the latter’s “hostility.”

“Offenders will be prosecuted,” the Hamas government said in a 25 December press release announcing the prohibition.

“This is the first time the Palestinian authorities have issued such a ban, which poses a serious threat to freedom of information,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It will also create problems for the not insignificant number of Palestinian journalists in the Gaza Strip who work for Israeli TV stations and newspapers. We urge the Hamas government to rescind this order.”

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