Which are the most problematic countries in the world for journalists and which are the most benign? The new "worldwide press freedom index," published this month by the French-based organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF), suggests that the most restrictive countries in terms of press freedom are North Korea, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Iran and Burma; while the most enlightened are Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland.
The UK ranks below Portugal, Lithuania, Slovenia and Trinidad and Tobago at number 24 in the list of 167 countries, while the US is between Macedonia and Bolivia at number 44. Iraq and Colombia, which have probably the highest casualty and kidnap rates for journalists, come in at 157 and 128, respectively.
The annual index attempts to measure "the degree of freedom journalists and news organizations enjoy in each country, and the efforts made by the state to respect and ensure respect for this freedom." The index does not take human rights abuses into consideration, merely violations of press freedom, although, of course, they may often be related.
RSF says it has 50 criteria for assessing press freedom, ranging from whether journalists are murdered, imprisoned or prosecuted as a result of their craft to whether they are censored or harassed, either by states or pressure groups that are allowed to intimidate the media. To compile the index, these questions were answered by correspondents and press freedom groups around the world.
Explaining how North Korea came to be at the bottom of the list, RSF suggests that "journalists there simply relay government propaganda. Anyone out of step is harshly dealt with. A word too many, a commentary that deviates from the official line or a wrongly spelled name, and the author may be thrown into prison. Harassment, psychological pressure, intimidation and round-the-clock surveillance are routine."
Iraq, as evidenced by the 36-hour kidnapping 12 days ago of The Guardian correspondent Rory Carroll and the subsequent suicide bomb attacks on the Palestine Hotel, where many foreign correspondents stay, remains the most physically dangerous place to work. At least 24 journalists and media assistants have been killed so far this year, making it the most deadly conflict for the media since the second world war.
At least 72 media workers have been killed since the fighting began in March 2003, according to RSF. The Journalist, the British National Union of Journalists' magazine, puts the figure at 99.
Journalists have also recently been killed in Sri Lanka, Haiti, Nepal and Mexico for carrying out their jobs.
The US slipped by 20 places in the rankings, mainly because of the imprisonment of the controversial New York Times reporter, Judith Miller, and legal moves concerning the privacy of journalistic sources. France also dropped in the list to 30, largely because of "searches of media offices, interrogations of journalists and the introduction of new press offenses."
The survey suggests that many countries that have recently recovered their independence or become independent are swift to establish press freedom, with Slovenia (9th), Estonia (11th), Latvia (16th) and Lithuania (21st) high on the list.
As with most such lists, there are problems. These may be to do with the way the questionnaires are compiled, the individual assessments of the groups or correspondents, and also what criteria are applied. Iraq now surely presents greater problems for journalists than, say Vietnam, which is rated below it. The RSF was also criticized earlier this year in a paper published by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in the US for bringing an ideological perspective to its work, particularly with its criticisms of Cuba.
So how useful are such lists? Granville Williams, who edits Free Press, the newsletter of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, acknowledges that there are problems compiling such lists, but says they are useful for drawing attention to attacks on press freedom.
"It's very difficult because clearly there are so many different factors," admits Williams, who has just returned from Ukraine, where he notes that the issues faced by journalists there vary greatly from those faced by reporters in the UK.
"But there is a usefulness in that it helps to identify pressure points and problems in a country," he said.
He notes that similar lists published by the International Federation of Journalists also helped to identify countries where journalists were under the most pressure. Certainly journalists have varying perspectives as to what restraints may exist on their work.
At last week's conference on reporting international crime and terrorism in Zagreb, organized by the British Association for central and eastern Europe in cooperation with the Guardian Foundation, a Turkish journalist queried his country's low position on the index, which was below Cambodia and Jordan. He felt that the listing there was arbitrary and did not reflect the true situation.
Other aspects of press freedom assessments are more difficult to quantify. Should monopoly ownership and strict libel laws be taken into account? Are rules on naming victims -- or accused -- in trials a restriction on the media, or an acceptable acknowledgment of a justice system that respects the right of privacy?
Would the privacy laws limiting the activities of paparazzi who pursue celebrities, as are currently being proposed in California, be a serious violation of press freedom? Is a free press in Britain enhanced by the protection of children's identities or should all coverage be unfettered? Is being prohibited from publishing pictures of naked people a restriction of free expression? What about swear words?
How does one ever assess the self-censorship that operates in so many media outlets across the world, in deference to the owner of the publication or channel?
What emerged at the Zagreb conference is that different nationalities have very different experiences of what constitutes press freedom and what should be permissible. One issue, for instance, was whether or not the term "terrorist" was acceptable, or whether it was loaded and so to be avoided where possible. This led, perhaps inevitably, to the issue of who defines "terrorism" -- eg, when practiced by the ANC to remove an oppressive white government, is it qualitatively different from acts carried out by al-Qaeda, ETA, the IRA or any other groups that have used bombs to advance their cause?
One journalist from former Yugoslavia announced during the session "I am a terrorist", saying that under the classification used by many people she was, as she had been part of an organization that sought to remove a dictator. Meanwhile, it would be good to hear from any Danish, Finnish or, indeed, Irish journalist whether they feel that their exalted position as a reporter in one of the most relaxed countries in the world is justified.
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