So Much For Democracy—U.S. Ranked 32nd in World for Press Freedom

Last year the globe’s most aggressively marketed democracy slid in at 47th on Reporters Without Borders’ ‘World Press Freedom Index.’

Demonstrators call for press freedom in support of journalists from the Southern Weekend newspaper outside the company’s office building in south China’s Guangdong province. China is ranked 173rd in the latest World Press Freedom Index. (Photo: AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

Feb 1, 2013· 2 MIN READ
is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.

When New York City police began their surprise raid on the Occupy Wall Street camp in November 2011, authorities tried to impose a media blackout. Sanitation crews began dismantling tents and peeling mattresses and abandoned guitars off the street and tossing them into Dumpsters. Reporters trying to cover the story were badgered and harassed. Some journalists resisted police orders to leave the area and were arrested.

Police displayed the same intolerance to press presence in subsequent Occupy crackdowns in cities around the country. This seemingly systemic battering and removal of journalists caused America to slide down 27 places in the World Press Freedom Index, a ranking that’s based on things like transparency, plurality, media censorship and a safe working environment for reporters. In 2011, Niger and El Salvador were considered easier places for journalists to work than the United States.

“Even in strong democracies, when there are huge demonstration movements, sometimes the authorities forget the normal rights of journalists to access information,” Delphine Halgand, Washington, D.C., director of Reporters Without Borders (RWB), the press freedom advocacy group that complies the Index, tells TakePart.

In 2012, the United States rebounded—although not nearly to the heights of Finland (ranked best in world), Netherlands (trying harder at number two) or Norway (a solid third globally)—and now sits in 32nd place, ahead of Lithuania but behind Surinam. The world’s leading democracy still has a long way to go, says Halgand. “[President] Obama made a lot of promises, but we didn’t see a lot translated into reality.”

She points to the USA’s lack of a federal shield law to protect journalists from being compelled to reveal confidential sources in court proceedings. Such a law might have spared New York Times reporter James Risen entanglement in the Obama Administration’s prosecution of former CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling, whom the administration alleges was a source for Risen’s reporting on national security.

In 2011, Niger and El Salvador were considered easier places for journalists to work than the United States.

Moreover, Halgand points to the upcoming trial of Bradley Manning, the Army private accused of leaking national security secrets to WikiLeaks. “It’s really difficult to follow. There’s no written transcript,” she says. “It can still be very difficult to have access to information.”

While America has climbed in the rankings, its neighbors to the north and south didn’t fare so well last year.

Canada barely avoided dropping out of the top 20 after falling 10 positions. The downgrade was due to Canadian authorities’ obstruction of journalists during the so-called “Maple Spring” student movement in Quebec and to continuing threats to the confidentiality of journalists’ sources and Internet users’ personal data from the C-30 bill on cyber-crime, according to the RWB report.

To the south, Mexico—where six journalists were killed last year—has maintained its status as the hemisphere’s most dangerous country for the media. It ranks 153 in the world for press freedom, three places behind Iraq.

But it could be worse. China’s military reportedly hacked into the computers of several New York Times journalists who were reporting on the country’s corrupt political leadership. China is ranked 173rd and “shows no sign of improving,” according to the report. “Its prisons still hold many journalists and netizens, while increasingly unpopular Internet censorship continues to be a major obstacle to access to information.”

Meanwhile, Eritrea and North Korea are the bottom one and two on the Index, giving them the distinction of being the countries that respect media freedom least in the world.

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