Opposition demonstrators hit freelance photographer Cristian Hernandez during a protest against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on March 4, 2014 (AFP Photo/Juan Barreto)
Media freedom suffered a "drastic decline" worldwide last year, according to watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which released its annual evaluation on Thursday.
"There has been an overall deterioration linked to very different factors, with information wars, and action by non-state groups acting like news despots," said Christophe Deloire, head of the Paris-based group.
The Reporters Without Borders 2015 World Press Freedom Index stated that there was an eight percent increase in the violations of freedom of information in 180 countries in 2014 compared to the 2013, according to its statistically weighted calculation.
The Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, Boko Haram in northern Nigeria and Cameroon, and criminal organizations in Italy and Latin America all used "fear and reprisals to silence journalists and bloggers who dare to investigate or refuse to act as their mouthpieces," said the watchdog, known by its French initials RSF.
North Africa and the Middle East contained notable "black holes" in which "entire regions are controlled by non-state groups in which independent information simply does not exist," the group said.
"The criminalisation of blasphemy endangers freedom of information in around half of the world's countries," the report said, noting that religious extremists sometimes also go after journalists or bloggers they believe do not sufficiently respect their god or prophet.
Asian countries perform poorly
RSF ranked Laos, Vietnam, China and North Korea among the ten countries with the very worst levels of press freedom out of the 180 evaluated.
“Thanks to its ‘Great Firewall,’ China continues to be one of the pioneers of online censorship”, said the report, noting that Hong Kong’s Occupy Central pro-democracy movement and commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre were the targets of skillfully-orchestrated information blackouts on the mainland.
“All terms relating to the anniversary were censored on search engines at the start of June and microblogging sites were regularly ‘cleaned’,” the report said. “All Google services including Gmail were subjected to massive blocking to a level of around 90 percent.”
Journalist Gao Yu, cyber-dissident Xu Zhiyong and the leading Uyghur blogger Ilham Tohti also joined the hundred or so other news and information providers already behind bars in China.
In Vietnam, harassment and arrests of citizen-journalists and bloggers continued as well.
“Police violence is very worrying in Vietnam,” said the report, which highlighted the case of independent journalist Truong Minh Duc, who was in intensive care for three weeks after being attacked by eight policemen in November of last year.
India, Indonesia, Cambodia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore, Pakistan and Sri Lanka also all ranked in the bottom quarter of countries surveyed.
Spurious 'national security' justification
“The military in Southeast Asian countries have realized that national security is an excellent excuse for silencing criticism and deterring investigative reporting,” said RSF.
The report noted that after Thailand’s army seized power in May 2014 to ‘restore order’, it “took control of the leading TV stations, closed around 20 news outlets, and blocked access to foreign TV stations”.
Indonesia’s military have also “used national security as a cover for a campaign to deter foreign reporters and thereby ensure that human rights violations in the eastern province of Papua go uncovered by the international media”, the report said.
French journalists Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourra, who were caught while reporting in Papua without permission, were handed three-month jail sentences last year. The government has also sought to track down their sources.
Meanwhile, RSF said that the death of Myanmar journalist Ko Par Gyi while in military detention and a “campaign of harassment of the media by the ‘special intelligence department’ have raised major concerns about the future of media freedom” in the country.
The best-rated nations in the evaluation were northern European states such as Finland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden, with New Zealand, Canada and Jamaica also making the top 10.
The United States ranked 49, three spots lower than in the previous report, in part because of what RSF said was the US government's "war on information" against WikiLeaks and others.
"Press freedom... is in retreat on all five continents," RSF declared, claiming its indicators were "incontestable".