Eritrea, North Korea, Syria and Iran lead world press censorship

Eritrea, North Korea, Syria and Iran lead world press censorship

The Committee to Protect Journalists releases updated analysis of press restrictions around the globe • Says censorship has intensified in Syria and Iran in response to political unrest • Countries judged on 15 benchmarks.

Israel Hayom Staff
Bashar Assad (center) and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (right), here with Hassan Nasrallah, share the quality of censoring their local press. [Archive]


Photo credit: Reuters


Bashar Assad (center) and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (right), here with Hassan Nasrallah, share the quality of censoring their local press. [Archive]


Photo credit: Reuters


The African nation of Eritrea, which shuts out international media and imposes dictatorial controls on domestic coverage, has emerged as the world’s most censored country, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports in its newly updated analysis of press restrictions around the globe.


Not far behind on the committee’s „10 Most Censored Countries” list are North Korea, Syria, and Iran — three nations in which vast restrictions on information have far-reaching implications for geopolitical and nuclear stability.


No foreign reporters are granted access to Eritrea, and all domestic media outlets are controlled by the government. Information Ministry officials there direct every detail of coverage. “Every time [a journalist] has to write a story, [ministry officials] arrange for interview subjects and tell you specific angles you have to write on,” an exiled Eritrean journalist told the committee, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “We usually wrote lots about the president so that he was always in the limelight.”


When President Isaias Afewerki dropped out of public view for some time last month, his citizens and the international community were left with only rumors about his well-being.


North Korea, which topped the previous list of most censored countries, published in 2006, and which moved down to second place on this year’s list, remains an extraordinarily secretive place, with nearly all domestic news content supplied by the official Korean Central News Agency. As North Korea moved down a notch this year, some cracks have emerged: The Associated Press this year opened a bureau in the capital, Pyongyang, and a Japanese editor is working with a handful of volunteers to document daily life in North Korea and smuggle out the recordings. But issues with vast worldwide implications — including North Korea’s long-standing bid to build nuclear weapons and its new political power structure — remain subject to harsh censorship.


Censorship has intensified significantly in Syria and Iran in response to political unrest. Syria moved from ninth on the 2006 list to third in the latest list. Iran, unranked in 2006, shot up to number four on the new list. By barring international media from entering and reporting freely and by attacking its own citizen journalists, Syria has sought to impose a news media blackout on the year-long military crackdown that has roiled the country and frustrated the international community. Iran has employed high-technology techniques such as Web blocking and brute-force tactics such as mass imprisonment of journalists to control the flow of information and obfuscate details of its own nuclear program.


„The censorship of the media existed far before the revolution, but it has increased since because [President Bashar] al-Assad wants to convey a particular picture to the outside world that the regime is fighting off terrorists who are causing the unrest,” Eiad Shurbaji, a Syrian journalist who fled the country in January for fear of his life, told the committee. Another tenet of Syria’s propaganda was that minorities would be at risk without the regime, he said. „Media censorship played a huge role in keeping Assad in power.” he said.


The committee’s „10 Most Censored Countries” list, released to mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3, also includes, in order: Equatorial Guinea, where all media is controlled, directly or indirectly, by President Teodoro Obiang; Uzbekistan, where there is no independent press and journalists contributing to foreign outlets are subject to harassment and prosecution; Myanmar (formerly Burma), where reforms have not extended to rigid censorship laws; Saudi Arabia, which, like other Middle Eastern countries, has tightened restrictions in response to political unrest; Cuba, where the Communist party controls all domestic media, and Belarus, where the most recent of many crackdowns by Aleksandr Lukashenko has sent the remnants of an independent media underground.


In making its selections, the committee closely considered six other countries that are heavily censored: Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, China, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam. By exporting censorship techniques, China plays a particularly harmful role worldwide.


Among the list of 10 most censored, Saudi Arabia is a new entry. Cuba dropped from seventh in 2006 to ninth this year as authorities recently released more than 20 imprisoned journalists and a vibrant (though persecuted) community of independent bloggers has emerged. Myanmar has moved from second on the previous list to seventh on this analysis because it, too, released a number of imprisoned journalists and informally loosened, at least temporarily, restrictions on reporting for locals and foreigners alike.


Myanmar’s military-backed government allowed foreign journalists into the country to cover a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December and a landmark by-election in April. „But between those two events, with limited exceptions, the government ignored visa requests from major international news organizations, making it impossible for them to visit the country unless they did so undercover as tourists. Also, visas to cover the April 1 election were valid for five days only, after which all officially approved foreign reporters had to leave en masse,” one Southeast Asia-based reporter for an international news outlet told the committee. He spoke on condition of anonymity, in order not to jeopardize his ability to report from the country.


As for local reporters in Myanmar, he said, „They are able to report on small domestic protests or rallies and photograph policemen without getting in trouble. They are also often posting articles directly to Facebook and other websites without clearing them with censors,” but they remain wary of the risks entailed in critical journalism.


The 10 most restricted countries employ a wide range of censorship techniques, from the sophisticated blocking of websites and satellite broadcasts by Iran to the oppressive regulatory systems of Saudi Arabia and Belarus; from the dominance of state media in North Korea and Cuba to the crude tactics of imprisonment and violence in Eritrea, Uzbekistan, and Syria.


One trait they have in common is some form of authoritarian rule. Their leaders are in power by dint of monarchy, family dynasty, coup, rigged election, or some combination of these. In Eritrea, Afewerki was elected by the National Assembly in 1993, but has since managed to hold off elections and the implementation of a constitution, largely by imprisoning critics and obliterating the private press.


Indeed, disputed legitimacy of leadership is at the heart of censorship and media crackdowns in many places. Syria has long been a tightly controlled country, but last year, when regular demonstrations began to call for the ousting of Assad, foreign correspondents were restricted and locals who reported on the uprisings were arrested. The dangerous task of reporting on Assad’s brutal military response was left to courageous citizen journalists and foreign reporters who sneaked into the country. Iran became vastly more repressive after the disputed 2009 election returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. Iran — which once withheld subsidies and issued short prison sentences to keep critical journalists quiet — now closes news outlets, expels foreign media, imprisons dozens on lengthy terms, and seizes property.


Saudi authorities, growing wary as regional uprisings ousted leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, added further restrictions in 2011 to the country’s media law, imposed new regulations on Web publications, and banned at least three columnists who had written about the region’s political unrest.


Lagging economic development is another notable trend among heavily censored nations. Of the 10 most censored countries, all but two have per capita incomes around half, or well below half, of global per capita income, according to World Bank figures for 2010, the most recent available. The two exceptions are Saudi Arabia and Equatorial Guinea, where oil revenues lead to much higher per capita incomes than the global level. But both of those countries are beset by vast economic inequities between leaders and citizens.


To determine this list, committee staff judged all countries according to 15 benchmarks. They included blocking of websites; restrictions on electronic recording and dissemination; the absence of privately owned or independent media; restrictions on journalist movements; license requirements to conduct journalism; security service monitoring of journalists; jamming of foreign broadcasts; blocking of foreign correspondents. All of the countries on the list met at least 10 benchmarks.


For its list, the committee considered only countries where restrictions are imposed directly by the state. In Somalia and vast sections of Mexico, journalists practice extensive self-censorship in the face of extralegal violence.