Eritrea is the world’s most censored country, according to a new report by a media watchdog which also cites extreme measures taken by authorities in nine other countries, including North Korea, China and Saudi Arabia.
The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said on Tuesday that the worst three countries for press censorship – Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan – use the media “as a mouthpiece of the state, and independent journalism is conducted from exile”.
Other countries on the top 10 list “use a combination of blunt tactics like harassment and arbitrary detention as well as sophisticated surveillance and targeted hacking to silence the independent press,” the report said.
Saudi Arabia, China, Vietnam and Iran – ranked fourth to seventh, respectively – were cited in the CPJ report for “jailing and harassing journalists and their families, while also engaging in digital monitoring and censorship of the internet and social media.”
Equatorial Guinea, Belarus and Cuba were also named in the CPJ’s 10 most censored list. The watchdog noted that conditions for journalists and press freedom in war-ravaged countries such as Syria and Yemen are “extremely difficult, but not necessarily attributable solely to government censorship”.
The rankings were based on factors including restrictions on privately-owned or independent media; criminal defamation laws; restrictions on the dissemination of false news; blocking of websites; surveillance of journalists by authorities; license requirements for media; and targeted hacking or trolling.
“The internet was supposed to make censorship obsolete, but that hasn’t happened,” Joel Simon, CPJ executive director, said in a statement.
“Many of the world’s most censored countries are highly wired, with active online communities. These governments combine old-style brutality with new technology, often purchased from Western companies, to stifle dissent and control the media,” he said.
In Eritrea, the report noted, the state retains a legal monopoly of broadcast media and journalists’ alternative sources of information, such as the internet or satellite broadcasts of radio stations in exile. These are restricted via government-controlled internet services.
It also said that Eritrea was “the worst jailer of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa, with at least 16 journalists behind bars as of December, 2018.”
“Most have been imprisoned since the 2001 crackdown, and none received a trial,” the report said, adding that “as many as seven journalists may have perished in custody.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has stepped up the use of radio signal blockers and advanced radio detection equipment to prevent people from sharing information, the CPJ said.
The report also said that Saudi Arabia’s already-repressive environment for the press has “suffered sharp deterioration” under de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
“Anti-terror and cybercrime laws and specialised courts give authorities free rein to imprison journalists and bloggers who stray from the pro-government narrative,” CPJ said, adding that 16 journalists were behind bars as of December 1, 2018, and Saudi authorities arrested at least nine more journalists in the first half of 2019 alone.
China has the most sophisticated censorship apparatus, according to the CPJ, which noted that Chinese internet users are blocked by the “Great Firewall” and that authorities monitor domestic social media networks and conduct surveillance of international journalists.
“Both privately and state-owned news outlets are under the authorities’ supervision, and those who fail to follow the Chinese Communist Party’s directives are suspended or otherwise punished,” the report said.
Whereas international journalists working in China face digital and human surveillance, with visas delayed or denied, the CPJ said.