The last year has seen tumultuous shifts for media freedom. But core problems still remain in the world’s troublespots, says Padraig Reidy
Over a year since the uprisings that have shaken the Middle East, and with the News of rhe World phone hacking scandal still dogging the world’s largest media corporation, this year’s World Press Freedom Day comes at a time when media freedom, its uses and its abuses, are under spotlight as rarely before.
Index’s work in pressuring the Belarusian regime in the past year has undoubtedly helped in gaining some dividends for free speech; the release of opposition figures Andrei Sannikov and Dzmitry Bandarenka from penal colonies in April being a particular highlight.
But the situation in Europe’s last dictatorship remains bleak. In March, journalist Andrej Dinko discovered that his name was on a list of journalists and activists who are barred from leaving the country, and cyber attacks and raids on offices of independent news sources are frequent.
Index on Censorship gave its 2012 Free Expression Award for journalism to Azerbaijan’s Idrak Abbassov, a reporter notable for his commitment to cataloguing the state oil company’s bullying of anyone who opposed its plans. No sooner had Idrak returned home after collecting his award than we learned that he had been badly beaten by oil company goons as he recorded them demolishing a house.
Azerbaijan is keen to use this year’s Eurovision Song Contest — to be hosted in Baku at the end of May — to present itself as a country making great advances. In fact, attacks on media and opposition have caused US think tank Freedom House to mark the former Soviet Republic down in its annual survey of political rights and civil liberties, in which press freedom is a crucial indicator.
The hopeful start of the Arab Spring turned to war in Libya and grim stand-offs in Syria and Bahrain. The Libyan conflict saw the death of photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, while the Sunday Times lost legendary correspondent Marie Colvin in Syria. The same conflict saw political cartoonist and Index award-winning cartoonist Ali Ferzat being forced to flee after government thugs broke his hands. In Bahrain, citizen journalist Ahmed Ismael Hassan Al Samadi was killed while filming a tear gas attack by police.
While it’s important to focus on government attempts to censor journalists, they are not the only ones with an interest in silencing the press. Index’s Mexico editor Ana Arana has over the past year documented the horrendous stories of reporters in Suarez and other parts of the country who face intimidation, beatings and murder for daring to report on hugely powerful drug cartels.
When placed next to this, the travails of the British press may seem small beer, but they have become the focus of much attention worldwide, thanks to the Leveson Inquiry into press standards. Index submitted its concerns to the Inquiry in January 2012, warning that revulsion at phone hacking practices at the now-closed News of the World tabloid may lead to too-strict regulation of the press.
We also pointed out that far from being feral beasts let off the leash, journalists in England and Wales have struggled under an archaic libel law that actively discourages vigorous reporting and, due to the “libel tourism” phenomenon, affects writers the world over. Index’s campaign to reform libel laws has reached an important stage: the inclusion of a new defamation bill in the programme for government outlined in the Queen’s Speech on 9 May will be a great boost to the UK’s reputation as a defender of world press freedom.
Padraig Reidy is news editor of Index on Censorship. He tweets at @mepadraigreidy