Media Freedom Around the World
The United States: the freest country in the world. Right? Built on the spirit of democracy, our leaders have for years espoused freedom of speech and freedom of the press as two of our most fundamental values. According to them, the U.S. is the world leader in freedom.
Not according to Reporters Without Borders, though. RWB, a non-profit dedicated to protecting freedom of information worldwide, ranks the U.S. at number 46 on their 2014 World Press Freedom Index, which analyzes the degree of freedom for journalists in 180 countries around the world. Among the U.S.’ neighbors are Romania at 45 and Haiti at 47.
So why does the U.S. rank so low? According to RWB, the U.S.’ fall (last year, it ranked at 33) is mostly due to the prosecution of journalists’ sources, including the arrest of Bradley Manning, primary source for the WikiLeaks case, as well as the 2013 Associated Press scandal, in which the Department of Justice revealed that they had been monitoring the company’s phone records.
So who are the world leaders in freedom, really? Finland, taking the number one spot on the list, followed by the Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg and Andorra. Northern Europe definitely has the U.S. beat in the freedom of press category, and their strong culture of free information has spread, to some extent, throughout the rest of the continent, with 31 of the top 50 countries on RWB’s list located in Europe.
The countries that are the least free are mostly located in the Middle East and northern Africa, where the Syrian conflict has resulted in press crackdowns in numerous surrounding countries. Syria, which ranked 177th out of the 180 countries listed, has brought up many polarizing questions in the region, which has led to decreases in the rankings for other countries including Lebanon, which dropped four spots from last year, landing at 106th, and Iraq, which fell four spots to 153rd.
The situation in Syria reflects a general trend for press freedom: armed conflict means stricter government regulation and more violence against journalists. Luckily, this trend has been gaining some attention in the international community, with the United Nations General Assembly recently adopting their first resolution on journalists’ safety.
Also ranking lower on RWB’s list were countries in Eastern Europe and central Asia. Rounding out the bottom of the list were Eritrea at 180, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea at 179, Turkmenistan at 178 and Somalia at 176.
RWB isn’t the only organization that measures press freedom. A new report issued by Freedom House, an NGO that focuses on democracy, political freedom and human rights, shows that only 14 percent of the world’s population is living under a free press, while 42 percent live in countries that are partially free and 44 percent live in countries that are not free at all. Compare those numbers to last year’s statistics of 32 percent free, 35 percent partly free and 33 percent not free, and it’s clear that we are in a pretty grim situation.
According to Freedom House, having an entirely free press means that there is adequate coverage of political news, journalists’ safety is guaranteed, government interference in the media is limited and the press isn’t limited by extreme economic or legal pressures.
According to Freedom House’s data, press freedom around the world is at its lowest level in over a decade, a trend that is caused by declines in freedom in the Middle East and eastern Africa, as well as Turkey and Ukraine, both of which suffered major blows to freedom of information recently. The decline was also caused by lessening media freedom in more developed countries like the U.S. and the United Kingdom, where the governments’ focus on national security issues have begun to eclipse the need for freedom of information.
Many of the declines in press freedom were seen in authoritarian countries, where increased protests have led to greater crackdowns on social media and the Internet. In many of these countries, print and television media is mainly state controlled, so the Internet is the main source of opposition news.
A greater crackdown on Internet usage can be seen in Russia, where opposition news sources are often shut down and replaced with more Kremlin-friendly sites, and China, where a new law penalizing bloggers has shut down many of the government’s online opponents.
Russia and China, along with a number of other countries, have also restricted media freedom by limiting the number of foreign journalists allowed into their countries. While local reporters are held under strict control by the government, foreign reporters have much more freedom, and thus are more dangerous to the regime. Increased targeting of foreign journalists, through legal or illegal measures, has seriously restricted their ability to fairly and correctly report on events in other countries.
Both of these reports paint a very negative picture of press freedom around the world. Press freedom is one of the most important factors in creating and maintaining democracy, and the worldwide decline is not something that should be taken lightly.
Clearly, we’re not doing as well as we think we are, and, even in the more developed countries, there is still a lot of work to be done. True freedom of information is a difficult dream to attain, but we shouldn’t be getting less free as time goes on. Increasing media freedom around the world isn’t easy, but it’s something that needs to happen, and soon.
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