WASHINGTON -- A new report by U.S.-based pro-democracy group Freedom House says just one in six people around the world enjoys a free press -- the lowest percentage in more than a decade.
The 2012 edition of the annual "Freedom of the Press" survey
evaluated the level of print, broadcast, and internet media freedom in 197 countries last year based on legal, political, and economic factors.
It found that the percentage of the world's people living in a free-press environment fell slightly, to 14.5 -- the lowest level since 1996, when the group began factoring population data into its findings.
But amid the distressing news, the report said one of the biggest developments last year was the "potentially far-reaching gains" that came with the Arab Spring.
Christopher Walker, vice president for strategy and analysis at Freedom House, maintained that "major steps forward" were made in Libya and Tunisia, and to some extent in Egypt.
"At the same time, there were a number of countries in the region with already very harsh media environments that cracked down fiercely," he said. "These included Iran, Syria, and Bahrain."
The report says the trend in those countries "reflected the regimes' alarmed and violent reactions" to the wave of popular uprisings.
Iran landed in its usual place in this year's report among the "worst of the worst." Walker says the country’s government "defines itself by the ferocity of its crackdowns, both on online and traditional media."
Ranking as low as Iran are countries including Belarus, North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, where Freedom House says "independent media are either nonexistent or barely able to operate, the press acts as a mouthpiece for the regime, citizens’ access to unbiased information is severely limited, and dissent is crushed through imprisonment, torture, and other forms of repression."
Late last year in Uzbekistan, one of the last independent newspapers
, "Zerkalo XXI," shut its doors, supposedly for financial reasons.
Walker believes pressure by the authorities was behind the closure.
"For newspaper-publishing, finding ways to publish this within Uzbekistan’s borders and then disseminate is practically impossible," he said. "So the fact that authorities are now moving to essentially cleanse the information landscape of the small remaining ways in which people in the country can get information also bodes very, very poorly for the country's development and speaks to the depths of the repression that ordinary Uzbeks experience."
As a region, Eurasia remained mired in severe press freedom problems, with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan also rated "not free." Ukraine barely hung onto a rating of "partly free," just one point away from being downgraded.
Russia is in 172nd place, tied with Zimbabwe. Walker noted "systematic [official] interference and obstruction in the key areas of Russia's media environment.”
The most positive signs in the non-Baltic former Soviet Union last year came in "partly free" ranked Georgia, with increased media choice and transparency.
Among other notable countries, China comes in at an abysmal 187th place and Afghanistan is in 164th. The United States ranked 22nd freest, while Finland, Norway, and Sweden were judged to have the world’s most press freedom.