Three of the world’s eight worst media environments are in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. That’s just one of the alarming findings on TOL’s coverage area in Freedom of the Press 2012, the annual survey by the Freedom House human rights watchdog.

Released Tuesday, the survey evaluates press freedom in 197 countries and territories in three categories – legal, political and economic – that consider everything from media-related legislation to attacks on reporters. It scores them 0 to 100 – 30 or under is Free, 31 to 60 Partly Free, 61 to 100 Not Free – and assigns each country a rank. The 2012 survey notes that the overall media landscape in TOL’s coverage area is backsliding just as the global average score for press freedom is up for the first time in eight years.

A few key findings:

  • Belarus, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are among the eight worst of the worst – countries where independent media do not exist or are effectively crippled by state pressure, and the press is a government puppet. Last year Tashkent closed one of the last independent newspapers in Uzbekistan.
  • The average score for Central and Eastern Europe/Eurasia fell significantly, and a majority of the regional population lives in Not Free media environments. The score decline is due to major regression in Central and Eastern Europe, especially in Hungary and Macedonia.
  • Hungary followed an abysmal 2010 with a downgrade from Free to Partly Free in 2011. Freedom House, like many human rights groups, says press freedom is receding under Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Budapest has been faulted for a controversial package of media regulations that took effect last year. The laws regulate not just public broadcasting, as was the case before, but all media formats.
  • Macedonia’s (Partly Free) score worsened six points. Journalists say the government, among the country’s largest advertisers, is pressuring independent media by shifting ad dollars to friendly outlets. Moreover, in 2011 an opposition-oriented television station and three of its newspapers closed after the arrest of its owner on tax evasion charges. Rights groups have called the arrest politically motivated.

Though Freedom House offers less analysis on Azerbaijan, it’s another troubling case. The country ranks 162nd out of 179 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index 2011/2012, right ahead of Sri Lanka and Somalia. Baku stepped up media repression last year to undermine any nascent opposition inspired by the Arab Spring.

“There was a dramatic rise in the number of arrests in Azerbaijan,” Reporters writes, “where [President] Ilham Ailyev’s autocratic government did not hesitate to jail netizens, abduct opposition journalists and bar foreign reporters in order to impose a news blackout on the unrest.”

Khadija Ismayilova, an Azerbaijani investigative reporter and Radio Free Europe correspondent, has also been targeted in a smear campaign. She says a video released online in March showing her engaged in sexual acts aims to blackmail her into dropping investigations into government misconduct.

Ismayilova has uncovered several cases of elite corruption, including against the family of President Aliyev. When the video was released, she was scrutinizing links between Aliyev and lucrative construction projects in Baku ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest, which Azerbaijan hosts later this month. For more on her case and the media environment in Azerbaijan, TOL has this report.

Picture of the Macedonian press corps covering a 2011 protest march by local journalists in Skopje from flickr

S. Adam Cardais

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Email: adam.cardais@tol.org.

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