The law operates in grey areas, and this is never more evident than when we see its violations printed in black and white. In what we might loosely term ‘the Free World’, generations of sceptics have come to rely on the media to uncover, unmask, and undermine. From the Vietnam War to Watergate, journalistic tenacity has been the caped crusader of truth. At the risk of sounding sledge-hammer analogous, consider the cultural metaphor, exhibit one: Superman as News Reporter.
And we’re all rooting for Superman, right? Freedom of the Press has become the most staunchly coveted emblem of the collective, democratic voice. Bleeding Heart outrage is never more vociferous than when confronted with evidence of nations whose press has been censored. We’ve gone to war to deal with this sort of suppression. Or at least, that’s what the papers tell us… It might surprise some readers, then, to learn that in last year’s Freedom of the Press Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (where a score of zero is considered total journalistic freedom, 99 – total censorship) the USA was given a score of almost 20. Similarly, The Reporters Without Borders Index judged the USA’s press freedom to be not more than ‘satisfactory’. The Scandinavians topped the polls, with Norway and Sweden scoring under 10. The rest of Europe did just all right. But all things being relative, we’re sure the Americans among us will take ‘satisfactory’ freedom over the regimes of these bottom ten nations, where the National Press is the hostage property of sometimes tyrannical regimes. So this is it, the official top ten suppressed press nations, according to the 2013 Press Freedom Index. Those of you who value your freedom of expression, take heed.
10. Sudan: 70.06
Sudan’s history is marked by conflict, both civil and otherwise. It is a country of pluralist values, and one that has only recently seen improvement in a long term economic drought. These are indisputable factors in the establishment of a military government that might, if it were on the couch, be said to have some issues with insecurity and narcissism. That said, the Sudanese government exercises more moderation in its handling of the media than many of its colleagues on this list. In the 1990s a wholesale press ban was issued, and the face of Sudanese media was given a 60-second makeover with the production of a few government approved periodicals. Since then, though, pirate radio stations and oppositional newspapers have re-appeared and are fairly widely circulated. Sudan’s response to this media is tepid enough. Confiscation of offending newspapers on a sporadic and localised basis has been the favoured approach. So why is Sudan so high on the index of suppressed-press nations? Well, according to the CPJ a rather worrying burst of energy has been noted. In 2013, Sudanese security forces were dispatched on regular occasions to confiscate entire editions of newspapers, with the primary goal of causing financial difficulty for those involved in their distribution. Thus far, this is really just a rumbling of something bigger. But it’s a strategy that heralds economic strife and morale crushing, the most profound enemies of the anarchy and bed-fellows of self-censorship. At the very least, it isn’t ever a good sign to see ‘security forces’ and ‘newspaper editions’ in the same sentence.
In comparison to many of the other nations on this list, Cuba (on the face of it) might be worthy of a slightly less damning score than it has received. The country has a constitution that explicitly guarantees freedom of the press. OK so there’s small print, stipulating that this ‘freedom’ has to be in accordance with socialist agenda. But it’s not a bad start. The internet can be accessed, as long as the government has selected you for a permit. Foreign journalists are allowed entry to Cuba, as long as they’re on the guest list, government-compiled. There’s a pattern emerging here, and it’s not an altogether discouraging one. The Cuban government seems to recognise the gaping holes in a so-left-it’s-right ideology that obliterates independent thought. What we’re left with is a pseudo-media and a little bit of hope. This probably doesn’t do much to lift the spirits of the journalists working there at present though. Smear campaigns and harassment of individual journalists at their homes and in public are standard procedure. Police brutality in conflict with media groups is also a matter of course. And let’s not forget Cuba is a pioneer of radio jamming, being the first nation in the Western Hemisphere to adopt this strategy. Still, media groups exist and they do write dissenting material. Foreign journalists are there. And then there’s that constitutionally decreed right. There’s a real possibility for change here. For the moment, though, it’s close. But it’s no cigar.
Vietnamese media is limited, and what extant press there is meets with government officials on a weekly basis to have all media approved, edited or excised. Now we might not be able to get a camera into these meetings, but the safe money says they aren’t serving coffee and sandwiches. We do know any challenges to the decisions of this ‘committee’ are met with immediate imprisonment. And yet Vietnam has been flying under the radar for quite a while now, in terms of press suppression. Even the Committee to Protect Journalists only gives it a fleeting mention in a section of their report on media censorship, despite its very definite merit as a heavy weight in this arena. Of course we know why. We messed up. Vietnam was not only the scene of innumerable human rights violations at the hands of those we might now want to call on to intervene in just such atrocities. No, it was more than this. It was the soapbox for our own war on government manipulation of the media. It’s all just a bit awkward really. We definitely can’t start catechising to this government about civil rights and the importance of transparency. All we can really do is make a mental note and come back later.
7. China: 73.07
China is one of those odd examples of horrible fascism that has entered the realms of the almost fictional. China remains a paradigm of cultural and linguistic virtue, its oriental mysticism still confounding the occidental world. And the communism that has so sullied its history seems just that – historical. Despite being very definitely present. But this is fundamentally because the Chinese government do a great job of perpetuating the myth. Exemplary of this is that one of the most central foci of Chinese censorship is ‘things we did in the past that might still annoy a few people’. Things like Tiananmen Square. And basically communism in general. Additionally, the Chinese regime isn’t flashy about its censorship. With the exception of aforementioned public butchering of innocent students, Chinese media persecution typically doesn’t take the shape of public execution or ritual torture. Instead, quiet and uneventful incarceration or job dismissal is the favoured response. But this shouldn’t make the Chinese intimidation of the Press any less significant. This isn’t an article about murder and bloodshed. And China has demonstrated a slickness in its censorship that should strike terror into us all. All press bodies are regularly issued with explicit documents detailing updated prohibitions. Failure to comply is a possibility, but one that is augmented by stringent censorship of readers in terms of education and employment. And further precautions are taken in addressing the inevitability of defectors. The 2008 Summer Olympics, for example, saw all Chinese TV stations broadcasting with a ten second delay to give censors enough time to deal with any ‘issues’. They’ve been playing this game for a while now. Seems like they know all our moves.
6. Iran: 73.40
If Iranian government officials were able to access the web to read this article, they’d be pretty disappointed by finding themselves at midpoint in a censorship league table. After all, they’ve been nothing if not thorough in their approach to the theme. And it’s been difficult, what with all the attention they’ve been getting from the rest of the world. So why such a poor showing Iran? Well, let’s start with motivation. Iran censorship is nothing if not traditional in its scope of bigotry. Women and religious sceptics take centre stage in the forum of voiceless entities. This is a problem. It’s a problem because the ‘Free World’ (and I use the term loosely) remember when these were two of our favourite groups to polarise and persecute. Except then we learned our lesson and now we’re contrite and angelic. Seeing our historical ills revisited like this – red rag to a foreign media bull. Next up – foresight. Which, for Iran, has been fairly poor. What they didn’t bank on, initially, was the internet. And outsiders. The BBC blithely operated from inside the country for a number of years, and even today some savvy Iranian broadcasters have managed to invite opinion in, having calls to a pirate station routed through European numbers so that they can’t be traced or the ‘culprit’ located. But we have to be fair. What despotic, murderous regime doesn’t have its teething problems? In fairness, Iranian response to these difficulties has been swift and complete. When the BBC instigated an inside operation back in 2009, showing violent responses to peaceful protest, no chances were being taken and the BBC Satellite was jammed. Job done. And domestically speaking the government has upped the ante. While other nations on this list might consider it adequate to locate and destroy the journalists responsible for whatever defamation is particular to them, Iran believes in a clean sweep of all known family and friends. Potential accomplices, you see. And as for the internet, the one time thorn in the Iranian side? You guessed it. Blocked, blocked, blocked. Look out censorship index 2014.
5. Somalia: 73.59
Somalia’s appearance on this list is a bit of a misnomer really. First, Somalia is, at present, such a factional nation that any statistics pertaining to the country warrant significant explication. For a writer or broadcaster working in the Southern parts of the country, their work will have to answer to the TFG (Transitional Federal Government). Journalists working from central or Northwest Somalia operate under the Al-Shabaab regime. Of the two major political parties, the latter is an extremist answer to the former’s relative moderation. Neither, however, stipulates any legal journalistic restriction, which is reason number 2 in the argument for removing Somalia from this list. Having said of all that, suppression doesn’t always come in legislative packaging. And de facto censorship is arguably a more sinister force than its defined counterpart. It is just this that Somalian media labours under – cloaked threats and second guessing. Media coverage might be ostensibly freer here than in other of the countries on this list, but defamation remains a crime. The problem is that determining what constitutes defamation in a country where information law is an official state secret is so close to impossible that self-censorship is the inevitable result. What we do know is that both political regimes have been known to communicate threats to journalists operating outside of what is considered favourable. Also worth noting, the nation’s education system is so poor that literacy is at an all-time low. It might be cynicism talking, but one can’t help but feel this doesn’t hurt the unofficial media suppression of Somalia.
4. Syria: 78.53
Syria, Syria, Syria. [Insert a shaking head and look of forlorn resignation here.] Of course, we’re all hoping that ongoing talks with the UN will make a dent in the ‘Improving Syria’ project, but at present the genuine horror of the Syrian plight is well known and unchanging. Further to a recent genocidal manic Monday designed to protect the al-Assad dynasty and its secularist agenda, President al-Assad has been called before the international community for a globally sponsored session of CBT, which subject has been the preoccupation of most global media. Meanwhile, back on the Syrian ranch, press freedom remains but a glint in reporters’ eyes. That is, while eyes remain to boast glints. As evidenced by the harrowing discovery of the body of Ferzat Jarban, the first reporter to have been killed in the last decade’s coverage of al-Assad’s regime, the gouging out of eyes is just one manner of eliciting information from dissenting writers. Torture, incarceration and execution are standard means of dealing with undesirable news coverage. But torture is a nasty business so, in a quest to make such measures unnecessary, the government has banned any foreign journalists from entering the country and disabled all telecommunications within Syria. Electricity has even been cut out to render internet and mobile communication impossible. Desperate times….desperate measures.
3. Turkmenistan : 79.14
In 2012 Turkmenistan held the second place honours in the ‘most heavily restricted press’ contest, so 2013 sees a slight improvement. Although, in a nation where the last government produced an intro to every news report stating that the journalist’s tongue will shrivel upon bad mouthing the government, improvement takes on a relative aspect. Turkmenistan’s government is predicated on a policy of obliqueness, meaning the only ideology that appears remotely transparent is that of racism, with the unusually specific targets of the Russians and the Uzbeks. To ensure this philosophy is mirrored in national rhetoric, the press is rigorously controlled. In a dazzling display of micro-management, the president of Turkmenistan personally approves the front page of every newspaper published in the country. He also oversees the four national TV channels. Proving he’s only human, however, he has to employ a few subordinates to undertake the task of spot-checking citizens’ personal messages and emails in the few public spaces that host limited internet access. Turkmenistan takes a palliative approach to the corrective treatment of journalist dissenters, recognising a pitiable mental instability in those who would dare challenge the regime. These folk are locked up in psychiatric units until they’ve regained their sanity. Who knew? A welfare state.
2. North Korea: 83.90
In the tradition of appropriating the term ‘Democratic’ for ironic effect, North Korea is up next. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has taken a novel approach to press suppression. This patronymic inheritance of a government has recognised the imperative of appearing democratic, irrespective of the reality of the situation. Unfortunately, Kim Jong Un isn’t winning any Oscars this year for his breakout role as benevolent leader, and the freedom façade is a poor production. Still though, the impetus to design a cardboard emancipation for the plebs is enough to ensure that a Press Syndicate does at least exist in North Korea. They even have an office. They just aren’t permitted an internet connection, or any communication with the outside world. But North Korea’s journalists are tenacious folk, and they’ve been working surreptitiously with Asiapress, a Japanese organisation, to smuggle footage and news out of the country via the Chinese border. That’s a dangerous game, though. Political dissent buys a ticket directly to Camp 22 – a labour camp where journalists, amongst others, are ‘re-educated’. Of course, if these efforts to realign independent thought are unsuccessful, the incorrigibles are tied to a post and shot in front of their family. As a caveat to some light torture. What you can’t argue with is the egalitarianism of such penalties. The North Korean government makes sure that incarceration is ensured not just for the authors of dissent, but also for the purveyors. Just listening to the wrong radio show is risking death.
1. Eritrea: 84.83
According to the CIA ‘World Factbook’, this African nation is enjoying its 18th year of suffrage, under the guardianship of the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). Which sounds nothing short of delightful. But then of course it would, since any press coverage emerging from the nation is filtered by the government, whose nom de plume can only be a bad joke. The reality is a dictatorial leadership last subject to election in 1993, a polarised people, with Christian and Muslim nationals at odds, and all of this in the context of a war with Ethiopia. The 2013 Press Freedom Index gave Eritrea a score of 84.83.Translation? Eritrean press freedom extends to permission to use ink. Beyond that, the nation’s journalists are the definition of pupeteering. Foreign correspondents have been banished, and journalists are conscripted (yes, actually conscripted, ‘a la’ a WW2 army) to churn out government dictated news reports that uphold a democratic mirage in a desert of totalitarianism. Defectors are imprisoned without trial, indefinitely. There have been some efforts to utilise that old paradigm of democracy, the Web but the Eritrean government stymied those efforts with a national Net nanny. Even accessing the web through the government approved gateway is massively expensive, rendering journalistic anarchy an elitist sport.
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