Freedom of the press backslides

Global Journalist
Sunday, May 13, 2007 | 2:00 p.m. CDT; updated 4:11 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Scott: Today we discuss an event that passed virtually unnoticed in the United States. May 3 was the annual World Press Freedom Day, a day designated by the United Nations to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press and to remind governments to respect and uphold freedom of expression. Each year, several respected surveys measure press freedom around the world. Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press Survey is probably the oldest. When did it start and what nations does it cover?

• Karin Karlekar, managing editor, Freedom of the Press Survey, Freedom House, New York City: The survey was first conducted in 1980. It covers 195 countries and territories and looks at issues that impact press freedom, such as legal environments, political pressures, economic influences and attacks and harassments against journalists. Freedom House found that of the 195 countries and territories we analyzed this year, 74 are in the free category, 58 are in the partly-free category, and 63 are in the not-free category. This year, for the sixth year in a row, global level of press freedom has declined, and we’re very worried about that.

• Scott: What does the Reporters Without Borders survey look at?

• Hajar Smouni, head of Middle East and North Africa desk, Reporters Without Borders, Paris: The index started in 2002. It measures the degree of freedom that journalists and news organizations have in countries around the world, and it looks at efforts made by those countries to ensure respect for that freedom. In 2006, we ranked 168 countries.

• Scott: The Committee to Protect Journalists conducts case studies and ranks the very worst offenders to journalist freedom. How does it do that?

• Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists, New York City: Our report looks at countries worldwide and tries to highlight patterns that, through our research, we have singled out as encompassing most of the countries we cover. This year, we concentrated on countries in which press freedom has deteriorated most in the past five years. We call that survey, “Backsliders on Press Freedom.”

• Scott: Who were the backsliders this year?

• Ognianova: Our roll of dishonor includes Ethiopia, Gambia, Russia, the GRC, Cuba, Pakistan, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Morocco and Thailand.

• Scott: What was the reaction in Moscow to Russia’s appearance on that list? And is that ranking justified?

• Fred Weir, Moscow correspondent, Christian Science Monitor, Moscow: In Russia, there has been a steady closing of the window when it comes to access to information and permission to debate, especially on television. Oligarchs are buying up media properties, literally at the behest of the Kremlin. It’s not Soviet-style, outright censorship. It’s a more subtle form of press control, and there is a rising danger for journalists. So, Russia does belong on that list. In Russia, journalism is a dangerous profession.

• Scott: According to the Web site, the worldwide toll of journalists killed or imprisoned is rising. The site says the top four jailers of journalists are China, Cuba, Eritrea and Ethiopia. But journalists have also been imprisoned by the U.S., haven’t they?

• Ognianova: When we criticize restrictive countries such as China and Eritrea, we shouldn’t forget that conditions in the U.S. are also deteriorating. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented more cases of harassment and jailing of journalists during the Bush administration than in previous administrations. That is a disturbing trend that passes on a disturbing message to other governments who can point the finger and say: “Why are you criticizing us? Look at what’s happening in your country.”

• Scott: Ironically, two of the top world press freedom advocacy groups are based in this country. Do Western values affect press freedom rankings?

• Karlekar: At Freedom House, we try to have questions in our survey that could be applied to any country, no matter its location.

• Ognianova: The Committee to Protect Journalists didn’t want to include any of the very restrictive countries, such as China and Eritrea, on our list of backsliders. We wanted to highlight some relatively free countries, such as Morocco and Pakistan, where press conditions have deteriorated in recent years. Those countries don’t usually make the headlines but are, in fact, places where local journalists are finding it difficult to do their jobs. We wanted to draw attention to countries that have been fairly liberal and have a vibrant press on the surface, but where press freedom violations are going on below the surface. We also wanted to draw attention to countries that have gone from bad to worse, such as Russia.

• Scott: Is Reporters Without Borders also noticing this trend?

• Smouni: We have seen governments, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, make repeated promises in the past year that they will introduce greater democracy and will change press laws, but nothing has been done. They are keeping tight control of the media. They have not changed the press laws and they are still as restrictive as they used to be.

• Scott: What are some of the causes for backsliding in Russia?

• Weir: Russian officials say that Russia is different. They say we have different values, a different history and we’re a different civilization, so don’t impose your values on us. In fact, Russian journalists know perfectly well the concept of freedom of the press. When Gorbachev started opening up the Russian media in the late 1980s, journalists took to it like fish to water. In the 1990s, there was an advancing sense of professionalism and a core of journalists who produced really good, combative work. So, the main cause of backsliding is not so much the background culture that is used to authoritarianism, but rather the active government pressure, which is cracking down on the press and limiting the scope of debate and interrogation for journalists.

• Scott: How much should national histories and cultures be taken into account in press freedom surveys?

• Ognianova: The recurring argument whenever we comment on press freedom deterioration in countries like Russia is, don’t try to meddle in our affairs and impose Western values on us. However, these countries do care about their international images. By monitoring them, we can highlight press conditions and help to reverse downhill trends.

• Scott: Where does the U.S. rank in these surveys?

• Karlekar: Freedom House ranks the U.S. in a tie for 16th in the world, alongside countries like Germany, Estonia and Ireland. We’ve seen a negative U.S. trend line in the last few years. One of the reasons for that is the jailing of journalists who do not reveal their sources. That is a primary threat to press freedom in the U.S. now. Under the Bush administration, there has been a more hostile attitude toward the press, particularly toward news outlets that have published stories about national security issues.

• Smouni: Reporters Without Borders ranked the U.S. 53rd in 2006. It fell nine places since the year before. Relations between the media and the Bush administration really deteriorated after the president used the pretext of national security to regard as suspicious any journalist who questioned his war on terrorism.

• Scott: Although World Press Freedom Day is not one of the most-celebrated events worldwide, press freedom is immensely valuable to us all. We shouldn’t have to be reminded once a year that democracy cannot survive without free expression. But, just as governments pay attention to these rankings, ordinary media consumers like us should pay attention to these rankings, case studies and evaluations. We can’t do without any of our Four Freedoms.

Byron Scott, professor emeritus of journalism and director of the MU European Union Center, was the guest moderator for the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students John Amick, Devin Benton, Hyunjin Seo and Catherine Wolf.

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