Press freedom declines in the Americas, but holds steady worldwide, Freedom House report shows

Less than 15 percent of the world's population lives in a country with a full free press -- the lowest level in more than a decade, according to Freedom House's new report, Freedom of the Press 2012, released Tuesday, May 1. The global press freedom rankings were released to coincide with the May 3 celebration of World Press Freedom Day.

In general, the report found that, for the first time in eight years, worldwide media freedom did not decline overall. Still, of the 197 countries and territories examined, only 33.5 percent (66) were rated as "free." The number of "partly free" countries increased to 72 (36.5 percent), and 59 (30 percent) were rated "not free." Most of the world's population (45 percent) lives in a country with a "partly free" press, the report showed. The rankings are based on the level of freedom in three categories: legal, political, and economic.

While the rest of the world saw no real decline in press freedom -- and even improved in the Arab world -- in the Americas, press freedom deteriorated in 2011, the report said. Both Chile and Guyana moved from "free" to "partly free," and Ecuador's overall numeric score declined significantly. Press freedom remained restricted in Venezuela and Cuba, and extreme danger for journalists in Mexico also hurt that country's press freedom scores -- both Mexico and Honduras remained listed as "not free" (see these Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas maps on press attacks in Mexico and Central America) While the United States continues to have one of the freer presses in the region, it, too, saw a slight decline because of arrests and harassment of journalists covering the Occupy movement.

Noting Latin America's "fragile freedoms," the report said that "whether due to violence by criminal groups, as in Mexico and Honduras, or government hostility to media criticism, as in Venezuela, Argentina, and Bolivia, media freedom is under threat in much of the region."

Throughout the Americas, 15 countries (43 percent) were rated "free," 16 (46 percent) were rated "partly free," and four (11 percent) were deemed "not free" for 2011. That means 44 percent of the region's population lives a "partly free" press environment, 30 percent are in a "free" country, and 17 percent "not free." However, the report noted that North America and much of the Caribbean offset much of the negative picture for Central and South America. When considering just Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Latin America, just 1.5 percent of the population lives in a country with a fully "free" press.

Although the region in general saw some improvements in terms of the passage of freedom of information laws and the decriminalization of libel, those increases were offset by declines in the political and economic categories. For example, the report cited the violence against journalists in Mexico and Honduras coming from drug cartels, police, and politicians; President Rafael Correa's harassment of opposition journalists in Ecuador; and the arrests of journalists covering protests in Chile.

Freedom House's report follows Reporters Without Borders' 2011-2012 Press Freedom Index, which showed press freedom worsening in Brazil, Chile, and the United States.

Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure, Knight Center blog editor Summer Harlow, who wrote this post, worked as a Freedom House analyst to help produce the press freedom rankings for the Americas.