The improvements in the Arab world were the most significant findings of Freedom of the Press 2012: A Global Survey of Media Independence, the latest edition of an annual index published by Freedom House since 1980. The gains came on the heels of eight consecutive years of decline in the global average press freedom score, a phenomenon that has affected practically every region in the world.
Three of the countries with major gains—Burma, Libya, and Tunisia—had for many years endured media environments that were among the world’s most oppressive. Both Libya and Tunisia made single-year leaps of a size practically unheard of in the 32-year history of the report. Furthermore, they were accompanied by positive changes in several key countries outside the Middle East and North Africa: Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Zambia. Other countries that registered progress include Georgia, Nepal, Niger, Sierra Leone, and Togo.
At the same time, press freedom continued to face obstacles and reversals in many parts of the world. China, which boasts the world’s most sophisticated system of media repression, stepped up its drive to control both old and new sources of news and information through arrests and censorship. Other authoritarian powers—such as Russia, Iran, and Venezuela—resorted to a variety of techniques to maintain a tight grip on the media, detaining some press critics, closing down media outlets and blogs, and bringing libel or defamation suits against journalists.
Another disturbing development in 2011 was a decline in press freedom in several well-established democracies, most notably Chile and Hungary. As a result of status downgrades in a number of previously Free countries over the past few years, the proportion of the global population that enjoys a Free press has fallen to its lowest level in over a decade. The report found that only 14.5 percent of the world’s people—or roughly one in six—live in countries where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures. Deterioration was also seen in a number of Partly Free media environments, such as Ecuador, Macedonia, Malawi, Uganda, and Ukraine.