WASHINGTON—Global data on press freedom showed a dramatic decline on freedom of information last year, according to the annual study conducted by Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières (rsf)), since 2002. World Press Freedom Index 2015 rank orders the performance of 180 countries, based on the safety and freedom of journalists and bloggers, and the media environment in which they work.
The Index determined that the overall level of violations of freedom of information in 180 countries has risen substantially with a decline in freedom affecting all continents, according to Halgand.
The results were released Feb. 12. On the day before at the National Press Club, the U.S. director of Reporters Without Borders, Delphine Halgand, previewed the results for the press.
One of the countries discussed in some detail was the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is ranked 173rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s index. Halgand said Iran “is one of the world’s biggest prisons for news and information providers, with 50 journalists and netizens currently detained.”
Interrogated in Evin Prison
One of those unlucky journalists is prisoner Jason Rezaian, who is the Washington Post Tehran Bureau Chief and holds dual citizenship. His brother Ali Rezaian was at the RSF news conference and said he doesn’t understand why the Iranian government has arrested and detained his brother. On July 22, 2014, Iranian security forces raided his home in Tehran, confiscated notes, laptops and books, and arrested him and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi (“Yegi,”), who is also a reporter. Yegi was later released on bail in October.
Jason Rezaian and Yegi were taken to the notorious Evin prison in Tehran, where Rezaian was placed in solitary confinement. He has since been removed from solitary confinement, but is held in a separate security ward. “Typically, he would be interrogated between 7 and 10 hours, five days a week,” said his brother.
Rezaian was not charged until December when the case was referred to a Revolutionary Court; the charges were not made public and the family still doesn’t know what they are. He has not been able to see a lawyer, despite the indictment, which is a direct violation of Iran’s own laws that guarantee citizens access to legal representation, states his brother on change.com.
He has been held longer than any previous Western journalist.
According to his brother, Rezaian had been able to speak with his wife for the first time in a month. Earlier he saw his mother twice when she came over for three weeks. He has lost about 50 lbs. He suffered from several infections. After delays for each infection, he finally got medical treatment and is doing a little better now, his brother said.
Rezaian said his brother has been reporting in Iran for over 10 years, first as a freelance journalist, and the last two years with the Washington Post. He has lived in Iran for nearly 10 years.
“He was always been meticulous about following the rules,” his brother said. Further he said, “This is a misunderstanding. He has not done anything wrong. There is no affiliation with the U.S. government.”
Rezaian situation does not look hopeful. A hardline judge, Judge Abolghassem Salavati, was assigned the cases of both Rezaian and Yegi, in the Revolutionary Court, according to the Washington Post, Feb. 1.
“We find it very disturbing that the judiciary would select a judge to oversee the case who has been sanctioned by (and barred from entering) the European Union due to what it calls ‘gross human rights violations,’ ” states the brother, Feb. 2, on Change.com.
However, support from around the world has been coming in at an accelerated pace. The brother was heartened at the news conference that his family’s petition for Rezaian’s release on change.com had collected nearly an astounding 100,000 signatures.
Raza Rumi, Pakistani columnist, analyst, journalist, and TV anchor, was nearly killed in Lahore, Pakistan, on March 28, 2014. Gunman opened fire on his vehicle, killing his driver and seriously wounding his guard. Rumi has been “a highly vocal critic of the Taliban and religious extremists groups,” according to RSF.
Freelance journalist and a friend of Rumi, Rabia Mehmood, wrote that Rumi’s name had been on list circulated by the Pakistani Taliban.
Pakistan is ranked 159 out of 180 countries in the RSF index. “Over the last three years, at least 18 journalists have been killed,” said Halgand.
Rumi said at the news conference that the main problem is the “non-state actors” are targeting minorities. People are afraid to give testimony in court to identify the killers. In many regions of Pakistan, a culture of impunity has always existed. However, the terrorists are targeting not just journalists, but women, children, mosques, “across of the whole spectrum of Pakistani society,” which is forcing the hand of the Pakistani state to act.
Rumi, who is a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, hopes that democracy will expand and that the government and the military will “do something about the terrorists and prosecute them.”
Non-state actors that follow no laws and disregard basic human rights, such as Boko Haram, ISIL, Latin America drug traffickers and the Italian mafia, are a growing threat to journalists.
More journalists were killed in Mexico than anywhere else in the Americas, states the RSF press release. Three journalists were killed in 2014, who were investigating links between the authorities and organized crime.
Ongoing wars in Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine make honest reporting a risk for the independent reporter. Syria was “world’s deadliest country for media personnel in 2014,” states the RSF press release. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is classified by RSF as a “predator of press freedom” for arresting, torturing, and arbitrarily detaining many Syrian and foreign journalists since March 2011.
ISIL carefully wages a media war as well as a military one, with its TV, radio, magazine, and internet outlets broadcasting propaganda. ISIL kills journalists who does not cooperate with them. We all remember the beheadings of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. No independent news coverage is possible in the regions that ISIL controls, such as Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul and Samarra in Iraq.
Reporting amidst a civil war is also highly dangerous. Militias and self-proclaimed rebels may force journalists to choose one side or remain silent. More than 40 people working in the media decided to leave chaotic Libya in 2014 due to the danger. “Journalists who try to cover the country’s conflict are putting their lives at risk,” states the press release. After the Houthis in Yemen captured the capital Sanaa, their “first goal was to silence the media,” states the press release.
South Sudan suspended press freedom because of the civil war. “Patriotic journalism” is strongly recommended in South Sudan, states RSF. A journalist could be arrested or expelled for interviewing an opponent of the government.
Covering demonstrations is harder today when the protesters and the police view journalists as an enemy. In Venezuela, the national army “opened fire on journalists during demonstrations, although they were clearly identified,” says RSF press release. In Mexico, journalists were attacked during demonstrations over the disappearance of the 43 teacher trainees in the state of Guerrero.
In Turkey, Egypt, and Yemen, the report cites police targeting journalists. In Hong Kong, police aggression and harassment were directed at reporters and photojournalists. “Police did not hesitate to call on organized crime groups to commit these offenses,” states the press release.
Blasphemy and National Security
Prohibitions of blasphemy and sacrilege are commonly used to censor political criticism of the government in countries which have, or virtually have, a state religion. Leaders will exploit these prohibitions to pass laws outlawing criticism of themselves, states the press release. Examples are given of heavy sentences for such “crimes” in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, and Mauritania.
France, UK, Turkey, Russia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and Egypt were also cited for invoking their national security as a pretext to suppress freedom of information.
Even democracies like the United States can make reporting difficult. In the name of national security, journalists can go to jail. New York Times investigative reporter James Risen was threatened with imprisonment if he did not identify his source at the trial of a former CIA official, whom RSF regards as a whistleblower. The Obama administration has recently backed off from prosecuting Risen.