Thought Possible

notes & magnifications, by J.E. Robertson
Editor’s Pick
OCTOBER 24, 2008 1:30PM

US Ranks 36th for Press Freedom Worldwide

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According to a new report from Reporters sans Frontiers, the United States is tied for 36th in the world for press freedom, with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cape Verde, South Africa, Spain and Taiwan. Of the nations that rank above the US, the report lists Mali, Ghana, Namibia, Jamaica, Surinam, as well as states formerly controlled by the Soviet Union such as the three Baltic states —Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—, and Slovakia. France ranked 35th, just ahead of the US.

The good news is that the US has moved up substantially over the last year, due in part to its release of an Al-Jazeera cameraman from the Guantánamo Bay prison camp for terror suspects captured overseas. RSF reports that:

The United States rose twelve places to 36th position. The release of Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Haj after six years in the Guantanamo Bay military base contributed to this improvement. Although the absence of a federal “shield law” means the confidentiality of sources is still threatened by federal courts, the number of journalists being subpoenaed or forced to reveal their sources has declined in recent months and none has been sent to prison.

The group also noted that there has not yet been justice for the murder of the editor of the Oakland Post, Chauncey Bailey, suggesting that flaws in the system and a lack of special protection for journalists may be contributing to the lag in prosecuting the crime. "The way the investigation into his murder has become enmeshed in local conflicts of interest and the lack of federal judicial intervention also help to explain why the United States did not get a higher ranking".

RSF also criticized the US for the "many arrests of journalists during the Democratic and Republican conventions", which includes the arrest of several credentialed reporters who were covering an anti-Republican party protest rally, during the RNC, by authorities who were either making blanket arrests or were specifically instructed to interfere with media coverage of the event.

Bolivia was the worst performer, dropping 47 places to 115th worldwide. The RSF report cites institutional conflict and the deliberate targeting of journalists by one political faction or another: "Its institutional and political crisis has exacerbated the polarisation between state and privately-owned media and exposed journalists to violence because of their presumed links with the government or opposition".

For the United States, the ranking is an embarrassment, as it has been for the last several years. The nation that gave "Freedom of the Press" to the world, enshrining it in the First Amendment to its national Constitution —the oldest still in use—, has in recent years found itself less and less able or willing to honor its obligation to the free press, and by extension, to its people.

The RSF report covers "every kind of violation directly affecting journalists (such as murders, imprisonment, physical attacks and threats) and news media (censorship, confiscation of newspaper issues, searches and harassment). And it includes the degree of impunity enjoyed by those responsible for these press freedom violations".

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Yes, I too thank you for this fact and I too am mortally depressed over the state of our country...My God, we are going down the shitter.

Great post, thanks for this interesting assessment of the sorry state Americans find in their country today. I fully agree that this is an EMBARRASSMENT, and in so many ways.

Do you know whether or not the recent FISA bill was/is a factor; it sort of seems like it should be considering how it could easily be abused to undermine press reports by intercepting communications ahead of publish, or broadcast, times.

Thirty-sixth when we should be FIRST. Disgraceful.

I don't know if the FISA revision was a factor in RSF's assessment. I have not read that. But there are some provisions that could interfere with the free flow of information, certainly. One area that seems to have been a problem in the past was the use of "National Security Letters" imposing an absolute (spouse included) blackout on individuals who may have contact with information the government wanted to confiscate (legally or not), such as library records. There was a lot of room there for interfering with reporters' sourcing, but I am not aware of specific cases of it happening. It would be worth looking into the provisions of the new FISA law, as relating to that kind of extreme secrecy and interference with First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights.
Wow. I'm impressed by Iceland.

And that business at the RNC was disgusting. It was unbelievable, the arrest of Amy Goodman and associates for ... nothing. Just because. Disgraceful.
Excellent post! Heartily agree with your covership!

My best professor once gave us a list of two nations (sans name) with side by side ratings on human development indictors (HDI) (eg infant mortality rate, maternal mortality, etc) and asked which country they wanted to live in. They always chose Costa Rica over the US. (He could have used Cuba's HDI but did not want to radicalize the concept.) Globally, we don't look so good!

o'stephanie, you have a very interesting point. The Human Development Index is a fascinating look at economic and political reality. According to the UNDP's most recent numbers, the best category for the US is adult literacy, where we are tied for number one with many other countries. Our life expectancy is tied for 29th, with Denmark and South Korea, just ahead of Cuba and Portugal.

A tricky figure is infant mortality: the US has improved significantly, from 20 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1970 to just 6 per 1,000 in 2005, but in 1970 was ranked 16th in the world, and now is tied for 30th with Estonia, Poland, Croatia and Cuba.
Amazing. Our ranking is pretty pitiful considering we're supposed to be the land of the free. Thanks for posting this.