Press Freedom Index: The top 10 worst countries

Syria, Rwanda, and Yemen have fallen to the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index, the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said today. The three countries join other single-party dominated governments at the bottom of the annual index, while six democratic Northern European nations tied this year as the best places for media freedom.

Finland, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland have ranked at the top since the index was created in 2002, Reporters Without Borders Secretary-General Jean-François Julliard said in a statement.

"The defense of media freedom continues to be a battle, a battle of vigilance in the democracies of old Europe and a battle against oppression and injustice in the totalitarian regimes still scattered across the globe," he said. Click through the following slides to read about the 10 lowest-ranking nations.

10.Rwanda

Rwandan President Paul Kagame takes part in a media event on Oct. 1. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/AP/File)

Rwanda fell 12 places from last year in the Press Freedom Index.

"The six-month suspension of leading independent publications, the climate of terror surrounding the presidential election, and Umuvugizi deputy editor Jean-Léonard Rugambage’s murder in Kigali were the reasons for this fall," according to a statement from Reporters Without Borders. "Journalists are fleeing the country because of the repression, in an exodus almost on the scale of Somalia’s."

The recent Rwanda election stoked concerns over media freedoms. The Monitor reported at the time: "Labeled a staunch economic reformer by Western governments, but also called a ruthless dictator by his opponents and by human rights groups, Mr. Kagame is widely expected to win by a landslide, at least in part because several of his opponents have been forbidden from participating and others have been killed in what rights groups and analysts suspect were assassinations."

However, African Monitor blogger Jina Moore argues here that the media situation in Rwanda is not as bad as in neighboring countries.

Yemen

Rwanda, Yemen and Syria have joined Burma and North Korea in the group of the world’s most repressive countries towards journalists. This does not bode well for 2011," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said today.

After Yemen fell 10 places in last year's index, The Yemen Times reported: "New media is very tightly controlled by the Ministry of Information, which in addition to monitoring the Internet, bans several mobile phone news services, including those by Nass Mobile or Bela Qoyod Mobile, on the grounds that text messages cannot be properly controlled. Service providers prevent some Internet users from getting access to local news sites."

China

"Despite an astonishingly vibrant and active blogosphere, China still censors and jails dissidents and continues to languish in 171st place," according to Reporters Without Borders. Despite a dynamic media and Internet, China remains in a low position because of non-stop censorship and repression, notably in Tibet and Xinjiang.

"We must also pay homage to the human rights activists, journalists and bloggers throughout the world who bravely defend the right to speak out. Their fate is our constant concern. We reiterate our call for the release of Liu Xiaobo, the symbol of the pressure for free speech building up in China, which censorship for the time being is still managing to contain. And we warn the Chinese authorities against taking a road from which there is no way out," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said today.

Sudan

Sudan fell 24 places from last year and is now ranked the 7th worst country in the world for press freedom, and the second worst in Africa.

"The temporary lifting of prior censorship on the print media in Sudan was just a smokescreen," states Reporters Without Borders. The ranking slipped "partly as a result of the closure of the opposition daily Rai-al-Shaab and the jailing of five members of its staff, but above all because of the return of state surveillance of the print media, which makes it impossible to cover key stories such as the future referendum on South Sudan’s independence."

Syria

According to Reporters Without Borders, "Press freedom is fast shrinking away" in Syria, where "arbitrary detentions are still routine, as is the use of torture." The state dropped eight places from last year.

The New York Times, in the September article "Web Tastes Freedom Inside Syria, and It's Bitter," detailed how reporters are still prevented from criticizing the president and security services or from reporting on issues like Syria’s Kurdish minority or the Alawites.

Even minimal press freedom in Syria, according to the Times, "is threatened by an ever present fog of fear and intimidation, and some journalists fear that it could soon be snuffed out. A draft law regulating online media would clamp down on Syrian bloggers and other journalists, forcing them to register as syndicate members and submit their writing for review. Other Arab countries regularly jail journalists who express dissident views, but Syria may be the most restrictive of all."

Burma

"Freedom is not allowed any space in Burma, where a parliamentary election is due to be held next month, and the rare attempts to provide news or information are met with imprisonment and forced labor," according to Reporters Without Borders. The Southeast Asian country is the 5th worst in the world for press freedom.

Zin Linn, deputy chairman of the Burma Media Association, told the Democratic Voice of Burma that Burma’s ranking was unsurprising. “In Burma there is no press freedom at all,” he said, adding that obituaries of political dissidents and their relatives had been refused. “If you want to put one of your family members’ obituaries in the newspaper, even that has to pass the censor."

The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2008: "Extreme government censorship is as much a part of life in today's Burma as rice and pagodas. Everything from TV programs to newspaper ads goes through a rigorous vetting board. But the junta is fighting a losing battle against a population hungry for information, armed with tools ranging from transistor radios to sneaky editors and myriad ways to bypass blocks on Internet sites."

Iran

The lowest-ranking nation in the Middle East severely restricts the freedom of domestic and foreign press. Just this month, Iran arrested two Germans who entered the country on tourist visas allegedly to interview the family of a woman sentenced to death by stoning.

In underhanded praise, however, Reporters Without Borders highlights that Iran at least did not fall any lower in the World Press Freedom Index. "For its part, Iran held its position at the bottom of the Index. The crackdown on journalists and netizens which occurred just after the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009 only strengthened in 2010," according to the annual report.

The Christian Science Monitor has detailed the media crackdown after the 2009 election. The New Yorker in August reported on continued reform and repression in the Islamic Republic. Author Jon Lee Anderson interviewed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

When the interview turned to internal politics, Ahmadinejad denied the numerous reports about his government’s repression of reformists, journalists, and human-rights activists. “One of the problems of the leaders of the West is their lack of information about the issues of the world,” he said. “Show me a country in the West where eighty-five per cent of the people participate in Presidential elections! There aren’t any! Iran is the record-holder in democracy. . . . Today you can see that all my rivals and the so-called ‘opposition’ are free.” [...]

When I asked Ahmadinejad if he would allow me to interview [opposition leaders] Mousavi, Karroubi, and Khatami, he said, “Is it up to me to authorize someone to interview someone else? Everyone is free. Of course, some people may have some limitations within the judicial system; that is up to the judge; it has nothing to do with the government. There is freedom here. They all have Web sites, news channels, and newspapers, and they say whatever they want about me. No one disturbs them.”

Turkmenistan

The former Soviet Republic has consistently fallen within the worst three countries worldwide for press freedom.

According to the BBC, "the Turkmen government has an absolute monopoly of the media. The authorities monitor media outlets, control printing presses, block websites, monitor internet use and lay down editorial policies."

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting says "there are no independent media in Turkmenistan. The late president Saparmurat Niazov enforced strict censorship and rigorous control over the state media sector and all who work in it."

Fear of retribution is so great as to hamper the Institute's ability to even train future reporters in the central Asian nation. During a rare journalist training session there in April 2009, for example, "when one of the trainers asked them to put together a fictitious press release on government plans to hold a World Cup football event in Turkmenistan, [the attendees] refused to do so."

North Korea

Reporters Without Borders lambasted the lockdown on press freedoms in North Korea, ranked second worst worldwide.

"Ranked just one place behind Eritrea, hellish totalitarian North Korea has shown no improvement. To the contrary: in a succession framework set up by Kim Jong-il in favor of his son, crackdowns have become even harsher," according to the Index.

Reporters Without Borders has in the past said "the totalitarian regime in North Korea keeps its people in a state of ignorance through tight control of the media." According to the BBC, "ordinary North Koreans caught listening to foreign broadcasts risk harsh punishments, such as forced labour. The authorities attempt to jam foreign-based and dissident radio stations."

It ranks with Asia’s three other Communist regimes of China, Vietnam, and Laos among the 15 lowest-ranked countries in the 2010 World Press Freedom Index.

Eritrea

Eritrea ranked last for the fourth year in a row. "Journalists employed by the state media – the only kind of media tolerated – have to choose between obeying the information ministry’s orders or trying to flee the country. The foreign media are not welcome," according to the Index.

September marked the ninth anniversary of Eritrea's detention of a group of 30 journalists "for merely exercising their universal and fundamental choice for free press and right to free expression," according to a statement from the Eastern Africa Journalists Association (EAJA).

“The Eritrean government is the worst enemy of press freedom and the greatest violator of human rights in Africa,” EAJA Secretary-General Omar Faruk Osman said in a statement. "Democracy and rule of law have totally been suppressed in the country, and replaced by cruelty, brutality, and heartless oppression. The Asmara regime has ensured that journalism as a profession cannot be practised in the country and has become the greatest jailer of journalists and dissidents in Africa."