NEW YORK – As decades-old authoritarian regimes crumbled or eased their grip in countries as widespread as Myanmar, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, freedom of the press gained precarious new footholds last year, according to a survey by a watchdog group released Tuesday.
Freedom House's annual survey of freedom of the press around the world found that for the first time in eight years, global media freedom showed no overall decline. The report came out just before Thursday's observance of the U.N.-declared World Press Freedom Day.
As usual, Western democracies ranked high in the Washington-based group's freedom of the press report.
But Freedom House marked down the United States slightly for heavy-handed police crackdowns on journalists covering various Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011.
In January, Reporters Without Borders dropped its ranking of the United States to 47th in the world in its annual Press Freedom Index, due to the Occupy media suppression, from 20th in the world a year before.
Italy rose slightly in Freedom House's rankings as media magnate Silvio Berlusconi resigned as premier. Freedom House ranked Italy as only "partly free" due to Berlusconi's far-reaching influence, a rare example in Western Europe of a nation not rated as having a "free press."
Britain also was marked down slightly for riot-related press restrictions, and legal "super-injunctions" that bar the media from reporting the very existence of an injunction against coverage of celebrities and wealthy individuals.
The Arab Spring unleashed the media in nations such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, according to the report by Karin Deutsch Karlekar and Jennifer Dunham.
"The newly opened media environments in countries like Tunisia and Libya, while still tenuous and far from perfect, are critical for the future of democratic development in the region and must be nurtured and protected," Freedom House's president David J. Kramer said.
China and authoritarian nations in Africa and the Middle East censored news of the Arab Spring, Freedom House reported. In Uganda, Angola and Djibouti, "the authorities cracked down, sometimes violently, on journalists covering the demonstrations."
China, Russia, Iran and Venezuela are cited in Freedom House's report for "detaining and jailing critics, closing media outlets, and bringing cases against journalists."
State control of television and radio is a key means of media control in many nations including Russia, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, China and Vietnam, Freedom House said.
Several democracies degraded the environment for press freedom and were marked down in the report.
"Heightened harassment of journalists trying to cover protest movements contributed to a decline in Chile's status, from 'free' to 'partly free,'" Freedom House said.
Mexico, where dozens of media have been killed in the past decade amid a surge in drug gang violence, "continued to be one of world's most dangerous places for journalists," the report said. Mexico fell to the "not free" status in Freedom House's 2010 report.
"And following a sharp numerical slide in 2010, Hungary was downgraded to 'partly free' due to concerted efforts by the conservative government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban to seize control over the legal and regulatory framework for media,'" the report aid.
Of 197 countries surveyed on a wide variety of freedom of press issues, Freedom House found 66 nations rated "free," 72 "partly free" and 59 "not free."
Largely because of China, "which boasts the world's most sophisticated system of media repression," Freedom House found that 40.5 percent of the world's peoples live in a "not free" media environment, while 45 percent had a "partly free" press and just 14.5 live in counties with a "free press."
Freedom House listed eight nations as the "worst of the worst" for press freedom: Belarus, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Freedom House is a U.S.-based non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom and human rights. It was founded in 1941, with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and defeated Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie as its honorary chairpersons.