NEW YORK – A slump in global media freedom driven by Mali's turmoil, Greece's decline and tightening media control in Latin America pushed the percentage of the world's population in countries with a completely free press to its lowest level in 16 years, the democracy watchdog group Freedom House said Wednesday in its annual survey.
Last year's gains in press freedom in the Middle East and North Africa remained precarious, with Tunisia and Libya mainly holding onto their Arab Spring gains while Egypt significantly backslid, Freedom House said.
"Two years after the uprisings in the Middle East, we continue to see heightened efforts by authoritarian governments around the world to put a stranglehold on open political dialogue, both online and offline," said David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House.
The Freedom House report came out two days before the observance of U.N.-declared World Press Freedom Day on May 3.
Freedom House said that in Syria, the government continues to forcibly restrict coverage of the conflict and misreport events via state-run television stations, and journalists and bloggers operate in an environment of considerable fear and insecurity.
"However, the loss of centralized control in large swathes of the country has allowed a rise in citizen journalism, the opening of new media outlets, and a decline in self-censorship," the report found.
China and Russia, the group said, continue to maintain a tight grip on traditional media — including detaining, jailing, or bringing legal charges against critics, and closing down or otherwise censoring outlets — even as they expanded their attempts to control content online.
Freedom House uses a variety of criteria to rank countries' media as Free, Partly Free or Not Free, and tracks trends over time.
Of the 197 countries and territories Freedom House assessed during 2012, a total of 63 (32 percent) were rated Free, 70 (36 percent) were rated Partly Free, and 64 (32 percent) were rated Not Free.
The analysis found that less than 14 percent of the world's inhabitants lived in countries with a Free press, while 43 percent had a Partly Free press and 43 percent lived in Not Free environments. The population figures are significantly affected by two countries — China, with a Not Free status, and India, with a Partly Free status — that together account for over a third of the world's nearly 7 billion people.
The percentage of those enjoying Free media in 2012 declined by a half point to the lowest level since 1996, when Freedom House began incorporating population data into the findings of the survey. Meanwhile, the share living in Not Free countries jumped by 2.5 percentage points, reflecting the move by populous states such as Egypt and Thailand back into that category.
Freedom House noted changes in rankings due to economic pressures on the media and overall financial disruption in many parts of the world.
"Political unrest and financial pressures brought on by the European economic crisis took a toll on media freedom in Greece, which fell into the Partly Free category," Freedom House said.
It also noted "more modest deterioration" in Israel, now rated Partly Free due to instances of political interference with content and financial pressure on independent print outlets.
A strong relationship was found between a free press and fair elections.
"A level electoral playing field is impossible when the government, as in authoritarian settings like Russia or Venezuela, is able to use its control over broadcast media to skew coverage, and ultimately votes, in its favor," the report said.
In Latin America, Freedom House said, the number of Not Free countries in the region swelled to its highest level since 1989, as Ecuador and Paraguay fell out of the Partly Free camp.
For example, Paraguay fell as an indirect result of the "parliamentary coup" that removed Fernando Lugo as president in June, Freedom House said. The organization said the new administration of President Federico Franco oversaw an immediate purge in the state media.
Ecuador was downgraded to the Not Free category as a law that placed limitations on media coverage of electoral campaigns and candidates severely restricted the press's ability to report on politics ahead of the February 2013 presidential election, and the level of investigative reporting more generally also declined, Freedom House said.
The United States was rated as Free, but Freedom House noted it faces "a threat to media diversity stemming from poor economic conditions for the news industry, and a lack of protection-of-sources legislation at the federal level."
The worst of the worst-rated countries were Belarus, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Freedom House, founded in 1941, is a U.S.-based non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom and human rights.