NEW YORK—Israel’s press freedom is in free fall and journalists are being murdered in Russia and Mexico, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). RSF released its World Press Freedom Index Tuesday and there was a general downward trend in the 175 countries surveyed.
European countries took the top 13 spots, yet there is a troubling decline overall, according to Clothilde Le Coz, Reporters Without Borders’ Washington director.
“Not only because of the physical assaults journalist are victim of, but because these countries are adapting and passing laws that are dangerous for freedom of the press and freedom of expression,” she said at the Overseas Press Club in New York. Five media organizations covered the event.
“The Internet is really a big issue in those [European] countries—the laws they are adopting in terms of Internet freedom are restrictive for freedom of speech in general.”
Israel sank 47 places in the index to the 93rd position, while the usual suspects such as Eritrea, Burma, China, and Iran sat at the bottom.
The U.S. jumped 20 ranks this year, from 40th to 20th, which was "amazing progress” to Le Coz. “Most of all it is due to the fact that journalists in the U.S. don’t get into jail for national security matters, as they use to during the Bush era.” She said there were still concerns over protecting journalists' sources.
Five U.S. journalists were detained in foreign countries last year—one of the most recent cases was Laura Ling and Euna Lee who were held in North Korea.
Working on the Mexican border is one of the most dangerous front lines in journalism today. Angela Kocherga, Border bureau chief for television company Belo, heads into Mexico daily with a photographer to report on the impact of drug violence on communities.
“We've been spending a lot of time in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico’s murder capital by far,” she said. “We’ve seen incredible violence, shootings in broad daylight on busy street, massacres in popular restaurants, killings in drug clinics, beheadings.”
She said there has been 55 Mexican journalists killed since 2000 in the area, as drug cartels fight for lucrative smuggling routes to the U.S.
“Killing a reporter has a chilling effect in a country where impunity reigns and self censorship has become a survival skill for reporters,” Kocherga said. Murders go unsolved and investigations often lead nowhere.
Restrictions on the press were tightened in China last year and now the country sits at 168th of the 175 countries. “You know exactly how Reporters Without Borders feel about China,” Le Coz said. “It's still the country where the most journalists are imprisoned.”
Currently there are 30 journalists and 57 cyber dissidents imprisoned in China, according to RSF. “We have bloggers and activists constantly sending us emails, telling us they are in danger in every part of the country.”
Ali Alnaemi, another panelist, worked as the newsroom manager for The New York Times bureau in Baghdad from 2004 to 2007.
He said the Iraqi government is increasing control of the Internet, including sites like Facebook. And despite the citizenry getting used to the presence of journalists, “There are still some worrying events … things are still shaky in Baghdad,” Ali said.
Panelist John Solomon, executive editor for The Washington Times said he has received help from RSF twice in his career. The FBI subpoenaed his home phone records in 2001 in an attempt to uncover his sources, the following year his mail was confiscated for two months for the same reason.
“Now I am an executive editor and make the decisions about sending reporters into harm's way,” Solomon said.
“It reminds us all that the world remains a dangerous place for a journalist. We still continue to see basic press freedoms abrogated every day.”
John MacArthur, president of Harper’s Magazine and moderator of the panel discussion explained how reporters leak stories to each other to help colleagues in trouble. “That's another practical thing … it's sometimes taking a leak from the imprisoned, beleaguered, or threatened colleague,” he said. “This happens in war situations all the time.”
Solomon said there needs to be more collaboration with journalists on the front lines. “I think we're giving up important ground that we've won for coverage for journalists,” he said. “I think that part of solidarity is greatly lost.”
At an RSF press conference in Paris, secretary-general Jean-François Julliard had a similar message, “Press freedom must be defended everywhere in the world with the same energy and the same insistence,” he said.
RSF compiles an index each year based on questionnaires completed by hundreds of journalists and media experts around the world. This year’s reflects press freedom violations that took place between Sept. 1, 2008, and Aug. 31, 2009.