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Journalists in Kyrgyzstan

The U.S.-based democracy monitor Freedom House says only 13 percent of the world’s population live in countries with a free press.

In its annual report released on April 28, the nongovernmental group says global press freedom declined in 2016 to its lowest point in more than a decade due to continued crackdowns on independent media in authoritarian states and unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies.

The report -- titled Freedom of the Press 2017: Press Freedom’s Dark Horizon -- assesses the degree of media freedom in 199 countries and territories to classify each as either "free," "partly free," or "not free."

Freedom House says a free press is a media environment where coverage of political news is robust, state intrusion in media affairs in minimal, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, and the press is not subject to legal and economic pressures.

It says 42 percent of the world’s population has a "partly free" press, while 45 percent live in countries where the media environment is not free.

The report says that while authoritarian regimes continued or extended their crackdowns on media, politicians in some democratic states launched or escalated efforts to shape news coverage by delegitimizing media outlets, exerting political influence over public broadcasters, and raising the profiles of friendly private outlets.

It says U.S. President Donald Trump has disparaged the press both as a candidate and now as president of the United States, rejecting the news media’s role in holding government officials accountable for their words and actions.

The report says Trump has repeatedly ridiculed reporters as dishonest purveyors of “fake news” and corrupt betrayers of U.S. national interests, while his senior White House adviser described journalists as “the opposition party.”

Freedom House warns that when media are lambasted by political leaders in the United States – a cornerstone of global democracy -- it encourages their authorities abroad to do the same.

The democracy monitor points out that the protection of press freedom in the United States remains vital to the defense and expansion of press freedom worldwide.

It says that in 2016 Eurasia continued to be the worst-performing region in the world for press freedom. Not a single country was ranked "free" there.

According to Freedom House, 77 percent of Eurasia's population lives in countries where the press is "not free."

All five former Soviet republics in Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – were ranked "not free," along with the Caucasus former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Elen Aghekyan, a research analyst at Freedom House, says that even in the more democratic states of Eurasia, officials’ attitudes toward the media remain alarming.

Security forces in Armenia brutally assaulted several reporters covering mass antigovernment protests, Aghekyan added.

Russia was also ranked "not free."

One of Russia's last independent media groups, RBC, came under pressure after reporting on apparent corruption involving the family and associates of President Vladimir Putin, the report said.

Three RBC editors were replaced by recruits from the state-owned TASS news agency -- a clear reminder of the pitfalls on reporting about Russia’s ruling elite, Freedom House noted.

Meanwhile, faced with Moscow-controlled outlets that disseminate disinformation and undermine the legitimacy of Ukrainian institutions, the government in Kyiv continued to limit access to numerous Russian outlets and deny entry to dozens of Russian journalists.

Freedom House ranked Ukraine as "partly free," while Ukraine's Russian-occupied Crimea region was ranked "not free."

Belarus, notorious for government crackdowns on dissent, was also ranked "not free."

But Freedom House noted some small improvements in the country’s media environment, netting Belarus a gain of eight points in Freedom House’s table of the Biggest Press Freedom Gains and Declines in 2016.

“Belarus, undoubtedly, in 2016 remained one of the most repressive and restrictive environments for journalists in the world,” Aghekyan said, adding that in authoritarian states like Belarus “very small improvements, or even the lack of violence in a given year in comparison to a history of stronger repression, can sometimes register small [increases]" in their score.

“For Belarus, in particular, the improvement in 2016 was due to the fact that journalists were able to cover the 2016 [parliamentary] election with significantly less interference, and especially not the kind of the violence that we have seen in the past election years,” Aghekyan told RFE/RL.

Most Balkan countries were ranked "partly free." The only exception, Macedonia, was ranked "not free."

In Serbia, Freedom House noted a “sharp decline” in the media environment in 2016.

According to the report, in order to discredit unfriendly media outlets, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic outsourced much of his presidential election campaign to the pro-government tabloid Informer, which published unfounded accusations against critical journalists.

Freedom House welcome “positive developments” in Afghanistan, where the government moved to improve the media environment.

Afghanistan was ranked "partly free," an improvement Aghekyan said was due to recent legal changes that illustrate the government’s more favorable stance on media independence, as well as long-term growth in the diversity of private media.

However, she pointed out that the security situation has continued to deteriorate, further restricting journalists’ ability to operate safely throughout the country.

A Taliban attack that killed seven Tolo TV employees in early 2016 marked the deadliest single assault on journalists in Afghanistan during the past decade.

The ongoing violence has forced hundreds of Afghan journalists to leave the country, an exodus that Freedom House warns could deal a heavy blow to the survival of democracy in Afghanistan.

Similar concerns about increasing threats against media and journalists across the world have been raised this week by the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders in annual reports released ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

Freedom of information is urged on French presidential campaign posters in Paris.

The press rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is warning that media freedom is increasingly threatened under authoritarian regimes as well as in countries regarded as models of democracy.

The Paris-based group says in its 2017 World Press Index, released on April 26, that violations of press freedom are no longer the prerogative of authoritarian regimes and dictatorships.

RSF says countries where the situation for media is considered “good” or “fairly good” has fallen in the span of just a year, and so-called model democracies are no exception to the trend when it comes to a worsening situation for journalists.

Canada, ranked 22nd out of the 180 countries in the survey, has fallen four places in this year’s index, while the United States, ranked 43rd has fallen by two places. Even the Nordic countries – which traditionally lead the RSF annual index – have dropped a few places in this years’ index.

“The democracies that have traditionally regarded media freedom as one of the foundations on which they are built must continue to be a model for the rest of the world, and not the opposite,” RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said.

“By eroding this fundamental freedom on the grounds of protecting their citizens, the democracies are in danger of losing their souls,” Deloire said.

RSF says that verbal attacks by U.S. President Donald Trump against media and journalists – such as accusing them of being “among the most dishonest human beings on earth” and of deliberately spreading “fake news” – compromise an American tradition of defending freedom of expression.

In Canada, at least six journalists had been spied upon by police trying to identify sources, which reporters have a duty to protect, RSF notes.

Britain adopted a law extending the surveillance powers of the intelligence services in late 2016.

RSF’s annual press freedom index includes a world map, in which countries are categorized by different colors depending on the situation of press freedom there: white indicates “good,” yellow – “fairly good,” orange – “problematic,” red – “bad,” and black indicates “very bad.”

“The global indicator calculated by RSF has never been so high, which means that media freedom is under threat now more than ever,” the nongovernmental organization says.

RSF says that the 2017 Index shows the “ever darker world map” as a total of 21 countries are now colored black on the press freedom map, and 51 – two more than the last year – are colored red. In all, the situation the situation has worsened in nearly two-thirds of the 180 countries covered in the Index, RSF says.

At the bottom of the Index, Turkmenistan has held on to its 178th-place ranking -- a ranking higher than only North Korea and Eritrea.

RSF says any criticism of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is inconceivable in Turkmenistan, where the government has total control over media.

The government has intensified its harassment of the few remaining correspondents of foreign- based independent media and also continues its campaign to remove all satellite dishes, denying the public of one of its last chances to access alternative news, RSF says.

Turkmenistan’s neighbors, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Uzbekistan are all colored black in RSF 2017 Index world map, meaning that the situation of press freedom in these countries is classified as “very bad.”

Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan are among the countries where the situation for press rights is “bad,” while Georgia, Armenia, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine are ranked among the Index’s “orange” countries, where RSF says the media freedom situation is considered a “noticeable problem.”

The Index’s “orange” countries also include Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Kosovo, and Montenegro, while Macedonia has been classified as a “red” country.

Afghanistan also is among the states classified as “red” for press freedom. RSF says “the courageous efforts” by Afghan journalists to full their reporting mission are frustrated by constant security threats posed by the Taliban and Islamic State extremists.

RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, published annually since 2002, measures the level of media freedoms on the basis of pluralism, media independence, and respect of the safely and freedom of journalists.

The 20017 Index takes account of violations that occurred between January 1 and December 31 of 2016.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Farangis Najibullah

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