By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
In its annual accounting of press freedoms, Freedom House said the Middle East and North Africa showed a dramatic deterioration in 2010. The assessment of 196 countries and territories will be released Monday.
Among the results: Egypt was downgraded to "not free," while Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Tunisia continued to rank among the worst countries in the world for media independence and press freedom. Only Saudi Arabia, among those five countries, was not swept early this year by uprisings and appeals for freedom.
"In 2010, we saw how readily governments in the Middle East turned to repression of the media," said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, managing editor of the Freedom House study. Gains have to be implemented quickly or "this window of opportunity will be lost," she said.
"The openings that have taken place early in 2011 give us hope that gains in the Middle East may lead the way to improvements in the global level of press freedom," she said in an interview. But recent moves by the army in Egypt to restrict news coverage are worrying, she said.
The decline in Mexico's ranking to "not free"' was described as a surprise and attributed to violence related to drug trafficking. Attacks on journalists, self-censorship and a climate of fear were among the results.
Around the world, one in six people live in countries with a free press, Freedom House said, and those with access to a free and independent media declined to the lowest level in over a decade. Besides Egypt and Mexico, significant declines occurred in Honduras, Hungary, South Korea, Thailand, Turkey and Ukraine.
Over the past five years, countries with significant declines have outnumbered countries with similar gains by a more than 2-to-1 margin. However, the report said, the global trend of declines seems to have leveled off in 2010. It is not clear whether there will be an overall improvement this year, the report said.
The 10 worst-rated countries are Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
"In these states, independent media are either nonexistent or barely able to operate," the report said. "The press acts as a mouthpiece for the region, citizens' access to unbiased information is severely limited, and dissent is crushed through imprisonment, torture and other forms of repression."