International Press Freedom day saw Freedom House roll out its annual report on media freedom in the world.
As expected, it had its moments of elation and gloom.
The year 2011 featured precarious but potentially far-reaching gains for media freedom in the Middle East and North Africa. Major steps forward were recorded in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, where longtime dictators were removed after successful popular uprisings. While trends in these countries were not uniformly positive, with important setbacks to democratic prospects in both Egypt and Libya toward year’s end, the magnitude of the improvements—especially in Tunisia and Libya—represented major breakthroughs in a region that has a long history of media control by autocratic leaders. The gains more than offset declines in several other countries in the Middle East. And even the greatest declines, in Bahrain and Syria, reflected the regimes’ alarmed and violent reactions to tenacious protest movements, whose bold demands for greater freedom included calls for a more open media environment.
The numbers are impressive (or depressing, depending on how you look at it).
The report found that only 14.5 percent of the world’s people—or roughly one in six—live in countries where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures. Deterioration was also seen in a number of Partly Free media environments, such as Ecuador, Macedonia, Malawi, Uganda, and Ukraine.
And so we come to a real problem. Deterioration is not only about governments imposing their will on journalists but it also comes from many other threats. And, unfortunately, too few people take the time — or are unwilling — to see the difference.
What struck me was the ranking of Honduras as Not Free.
I live there and I have to say the newspapers and broadcast journalists are pretty feisty and independent of government control. (Much to the shock and horror of the Honduran government when critical stories make the rounds.)
So, for Freedom House, the lack of freedom in Honduras does not come from an overt action by the current government. It comes from non-governmental forces. However, Freedom House sees a growing problem in the region from both criminal elements and governments.
Whether due to violence by criminal groups, as in Mexico and Honduras, or government hostility to media criticism, as in Venezuela, Argentina, and Bolivia, media freedom is on the defensive in much of Central and South America.
Journalists in Mexico and Honduras are working very hard to tell the stories about what is happening in their countries. For both places the threat is not from their governments — except for the incompetent nature of those governments to deal with criminal elements and corruption of many government officials — but rather from “private” players. Reporters are threatened and some are killed. (Most recently in Mexico the bodies of three photojournalists were found.) But not by government agents.
In Venezuela and Bolivia the threat is both from the governments and criminal elements.
In Honduras, under the coup government of Micheletti, there was an active and official campaign to harass and detain journalists but that has pretty much stopped under the Lobo government. That does not mean that occasionally Lobo doesn’t say things about press freedom that he quickly regrets. And those statements do make people nervous. But unlike his predecessor — Micheletti — he has not ordered arrests or harassment of journalists.
Honduras also stayed in the Not Free category because of continued harassment and intimidation of journalists. Although fewer journalists were killed than in 2010, self-censorship and a lack of access to information were still problems.
The last sentence is significant and shows a continued problem in Honduras.
The governments of the past have shown little desire to be transparent. And while the Lobo government makes all the right noises about being more transparent it shows little action in that direction. It even failed to send a delegate to the most recent meeting of the Open Government Initiative. (Not a good sign.)