In 1948, the United Nations created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document would serve as a guideline to all nations regarding what a basic human right is, and one of those rights is Article 19. This particular right is to seek and receive news and express opinions. However, as we know, some countries have different interpretations of what this means and often blatantly ignore it altogether.
While journalists are the backbone of a free and democratic society, most governments treat them as a threat to peace and order. More importantly, they consider them a threat to their regimes, which are often tyrannical while disregarding multiple human rights. In these countries, journalists live in fear, knowing that by reporting the truth, they put their very lives at risk. Moreover, in some countries, journalists act as mouthpieces for the regime. Their sole purpose is to spread propaganda and lies about the state of affairs both in and beyond the country’s borders.
This is something we’ve seen progressively get worse in the last few years, and some countries are further backsliding into oppressive regimes where freedom of speech, expression, and the right to a free press are under assault or non-existent. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and RSF Reporters Without Borders have consistently compiled lists of the most censored countries. For the most part, it’s the usual suspects, but there’s a surprising addition every now and then.
10. Saudi Arabia
Journalism in Saudi Arabia has never been something that came freely, but it’s gotten far worse since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ascended to power in 2017. Since then, the number of journalists jailed in Saudi Arabia has tripled. The Crown Prince’s regime controls Saudia Arabia’s entire media apparatus. How the Arabian nation censors its media differs from some of the worst offenders. The regime has numerous state-owned media outlets which are advised to practice self-censorship. In contrast, private media outlets have to endure daily oversight by members of the Ministry of Information.
Crossing the regime can come in the way of two possibilities. The first is to go directly against the regime, its policies, and its actions. The second is to stay neutral and avoid praising the regime; this makes you a suspect. Saudi Arabia’s laws have been crafted so that any journalism deemed ‘dangerous to the regime’ can be punishable. This can result in either suspension or imprisonment. More often, it’s the latter. A high-profile example of this is Jamal Khashoggi, who died in September 2018 at the suspected order of the Crown Prince. As of 2023, 24 journalists are currently being detained in Saudi Arabia.
Bahrain is one of the smallest nations in Asia and only has a population of roughly 1.45 million people. Like Saudi Arabia, the country is governed by a royal family with no qualms about making journalist arrests. When it comes to human rights, they’re not worried about silencing anyone who opposes the regime. This extends to shutting down opposing political parties and human rights defenders.
Since 2017, when the last independent newspaper was shut down, Bahrain’s media apparatus has been under the control of the Ministry of Informational Affairs. These are only radio stations and TV Channels. The country no longer has a formal newspaper but does have six national dailies, which are semi-governmental. 2011 was when things began to get far worse in Bahrain after pro-democracy protests broke out; this led to the reduction of space for independence in journalism, ultimately transforming the media into a mouthpiece serving the royal family. The country is a land that lacks any freedom of expression, outdated media laws, and harsh treatment for those who go against the regime. As of 2023, there are ten journalists currently being detained in Bahrain.
Cuba makes the list as one of the worst cases of censorship for journalists in the world and remains the worst in South America. As a nation, Cuba has a rocky history when it comes to freedom of speech. The nation has been through revolutions, dictatorships, and numerous crises throughout its history.
The 21st century saw the country begin loosening its grip on the restrictive social and economic policies. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to improve conditions in the country where shortages of just about every basic need, such as food, electricity, and transportation, to name a few. The US embargo, which started to combat the Castro regime, remained in place even as the country seemingly made progress toward a brighter future. This embargo remains a source of great strain on the Cuban economy.
When a country is failing, censorship usually follows closely. Almost all media outlets are controlled by the government, including newspapers, radio, and television. There are independent journalists, but the word independence is used lightly, considering they’re closely monitored. This has been the case since Fidel Castro in 1959. Even the internet is censored. Right now, Cuba is experiencing its worst economic crisis in 30 years, causing many citizens to protest or attempt to escape the country. It’s hard to know the entire situation on the ground, as getting the story out of Cuba is as difficult as escaping the country or criticizing it.
On February 1, 2021, Myanmar lost its democratically elected government due to a military coup d’état. Now, before the coup, Myanmar wasn’t a bastion of freedom, but to say things got much worse following the coup would be an understatement.
When the coup took place, there were efforts being made towards enhanced press freedom. Unfortunately, those delicate efforts were shattered. Following the takeover, the junta banned numerous media outlets, making it not only more difficult for the people of Myanmar to understand what was going on but also harder for the world to understand the situation on the ground. Government-controlled media quickly emerged and acted as a propaganda tool for the junta, and while some outlets tread the line between informing the people and not offending the government, they were heavily handicapped.
the official title of the junta government is the State Administration Council. Thanks to their control, they’re able to minimize outreach of the nation’s numerous human rights abuses and open acts of terror on the people of Myanmar. As it stands, Myanmar has one of the highest numbers of detained journalists at 69, with one media worker also detained.
One of the world’s worst offenders of censorship is the small African nation of Eritrea, located on the Red Sea in the Horn of Africa region. Eritrea only became a sovereign nation in 1993, and since gaining independence, it has gone on to become one of the poorest countries in the world, currently ranking 44 out of 47 African nations. While it’s close to the bottom in terms of economies, it nearly tops the Reporters Without Borders index for most censored countries.
The country has outright banned independent media since becoming a militarized authoritarian state in September 2001. This ban extends to foreign media, and instead, the country has state-run news agencies and various publications. At the helm of this intense ban is dictator Afeworki, who has ensured that information doesn’t spread fast, if at all, extending this to his own government. Reports claim that there are 11 journalists who have been imprisoned for over two decades, as well as four media workers.
The control of the media has allowed Eritrea to contain almost everything happening in their country. Their censorship goes well beyond the news as they also monitor internet usage through internet cafes, which provide the only internet connection but require IDs to be used to keep track of what they’re searching. Entertainment made by Eritreans who’ve absconded is forbidden, social media apps are blocked, and anything intended to be printed, filmed, or recorded requires regime approval. Eritrea remains a country with the world’s most intensive and pervasive censorship.
Asia is a continent with a bad reputation when it comes to press freedom and censorship. Turkmenistan is no exception and is instead one of the continent’s worst offenders. This oppressive authoritarian state is known for its lack of civil liberties and political rights, which extend to just about every corner of the nation. It gained independence from the USSR in 1991 but seemingly retained a repressive regime following its independence.
The Turkmenistan government has maintained a firm grip on the nation and its people and retains one of the world’s worst records when it comes to human rights. All forms of media, including television, radio, internet, and newspapers, are controlled by the regime. Attempting to access various worldwide media sources using VPNs can result in harsh punishment, meaning the people of Turkmenistan know little about the outside world. As a result of the isolationist tendencies, we know little about the country, too.
As it stands, they only have one journalist in detention. However, this doesn’t reflect the countless journalists who have either escaped or met a far worse fate than prison. There are independent and opposition media sources, but these all operate from abroad and have a limited reach.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to see Iran on this list, considering the last few years and its overall history. Iran is known for being a rather unstable country for numerous reasons. For starters, when we look at Iran politically, the government is considered a theocratic authoritarian. They have repressive policies that are designed to keep in line with the Islamic faith, which is known for being extremely conservative. They are also known for being violent in their approach to ensuring the laws are followed, as we saw in 2022 with the death of Jina Masha Amini, who died at the hands of the ‘morality police’ for improper attire that went against a newly state-sanctioned dress code.
The Iranian government has long been a repressive regime. 2022 saw the effort to censor and control the populous grow in the wake of a dissatisfied population and continuous strikes. The death of Jina Masha Amini only saw the discontent grow, resulting in one of the most famous protests in history. It was also one of Iran’s largest protests in years.
Iran has retained control over every media outlet in the nation. The country is openly hostile to journalists, making independent media outlets scarce and operating outside of Iran’s borders. While the population is progressive and the government is oppressive, they continue to make their voices heard even when it has dire consequences. As of 2023, Iran has 21 journalists detained. However, that number is considered to be much higher in reality, considering the wave of arrests following Amini’s death.
Vietnam holds the title as the world’s third-largest jailor of journalists. Not a great title, but one they don’t seem to be phased about. The communist party that controls Vietnam maintains a monopoly on every aspect of the country, from politics to the daily lives of the people. Being an independent journalist in Vietnam is a near-impossible task.
The lengths to which Vietnam goes to control the media and censor journalists are intense. The communist party developed Force-47, which is a cyber unit with 10,000 ‘cyber-soldiers’ tasked with finding online dissidents, attacking them, and defending the government.
The government doesn’t own media outlets outright. However, they are the majority shareholders, meaning they provide a bulk of the funding to these outlets and have a front-row seat to ensure they’re censoring themselves. Vietnam makes a concerted effort to censor any mentions of the government’s legitimacy, corruption, dissidents, human rights abuses, LGBT rights, environmental issues, and the country’s relationship with China.
As of 2023, Vietnam has 39 journalists detained in prison. The way things are going, that number is only expected to grow as the Vietnamese government gets harsher on journalists with each passing year.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has always been one of the worst censorship offenders. However, recent years have seen them progressively get worse. This is largely due to President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is seeking to further cement their influence and power on both a domestic and global front. As of 2023, over 100 journalists are detained in China, making it the world’s largest prison for journalists.
China operates like many of the other countries on this list in terms of having numerous state-owned media groups bolstered by their Propaganda Department, which censors these state-owned outlets daily by providing guidelines and censored topics. Many countries on this list are awful when censoring and punishing journalists, but they stick within their borders. On the other hand, China’s disdain towards journalism has led to an international campaign against the right to information and repression against journalists.
Despite the high level of censorship, there are still independent journalists in China. However, this comes with great risk. Speak out against the CCP, and you risk being put under surveillance. It can also lead to being harassed, detained, and often tortured. The latest effort being considered is a law making private investments in media companies illegal to silence independent journalists even further. While the PRC’s constitution affords citizens rights like freedom of speech and press, the reality is that the CCP has created so many laws that make it far too easy to jail citizens for just about anything they deem a danger to their power.
1. North Korea
It’s likely not a surprise to see North Korea taking the top spot when it comes to censorship. North Korea is a nation ruled by one of the world’s most brutal authoritarian regimes, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and when it comes to censorship, they know what they’re doing.
Run by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea’s media apparatus acts only as a mouthpiece for the regime and remains the only source of news and information in the country. Production for the KCNA is heavily controlled by the regime. This makes sense, considering North Korea’s power comes from censorship, propaganda, surveillance, and repression. The media apparatus is the main arm of this means of strict control.
Even from the outside, it’s never easy to tell what’s going on within the borders of North Korea. As a nation, North Korea is among the most isolated in the world. When we find out something about North Korea, it’s usually because they want us to know about it. The growing North Korean Army, weapons production, and nuclear capabilities are great examples of stories they’re willing to report on. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we can look to COVID-19 when the nation consistently reported zero COVID cases. While there are a few press agencies active in North Korea, they’re handicapped by the constant surveillance and threats of punishment should they step out of line.
Ultimately, the Kim dynasty created a heavily controlled nation, leaving no room for freedom of speech or a free press. While only one media worker and one journalist are jailed in North Korea, the strict laws and threats of capital punishment have made very few try to defy the Supreme Leader, proving that censorship only works when fear motivates its acceptance.