Despite what most people think, journalists in the United States do not have the highest level of media freedom in the world.
The best countries for working journalists are Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland.
The worst places, the “black holes” where freedom of the press is the most restrictive, are North Korea, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Iran, Burma, Libya and Cuba.
These recent conclusions are from the fourth annual World Press Freedom Index, conducted by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The international watchdog agency based its rankings of 167 countries on 50 questions that were sent to 14 freedom of expression groups worldwide as well as to journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists throughout the globe.
Examining the frequency and severity of actual violations involving journalists in each country for a one-year period (beginning Sept. 1, 2004), respondents rated the level of freedom enjoyed by members of the press in each nation.
According to RSF, the questionnaire measured “every kind of violation directly affecting journalists (such as murders, imprisonment, physical attacks and threats) and news media (censorship, confiscation of issues, searches and harassment).
“It (the Freedom Index) registers the degree of impunity enjoyed by those responsible for such violations. It also takes account of the legal situation affecting the news media (such as penalties for press offenses, the existence of a state monopoly in certain areas and the existence of a regulatory body) and the behavior of the authorities towards the state-owned news media and the foreign press.”
So what about freedom of the press in the United States? The Freedom Index ranks the U.S. at 44, far below Slovakia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Namibia, El Salvador, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“The United States … fell more than 20 places,” says RSF, “mainly because of the imprisonment of New York Times reporter Judith Miller and legal moves undermining the privacy of journalistic sources. Canada (21st) also dropped several places due to decisions that weakened the privacy of sources and sometimes turned journalists into ‘court auxiliaries.’ France (30th) also slipped, largely because of searches of media offices, interrogations of journalists and introduction of new press offenses.”
One surprising conclusion of the 2005 Freedom Index is that people in poorer countries do, in fact, share many of the same freedoms as those living in richer nations.
“The Index also contradicts the frequent argument by leaders of poor and repressive countries that economic development is a vital precondition for democracy and respect for human rights,” explains RSF.
“The top of the Index is heavily dominated by rich countries, but several very poor ones (with a per capita GDP of less than $1,000 in 2003) are among the top 60, such as Benin (25th), Mali (37th), Bolivia (45th), Mozambique (49th), Mongolia (53rd), Niger (57th) and East Timor (58th).”
To review the rankings of all 167 countries or to read more about the fourth annual Freedom Index, go to www.rsf.org
Officials seize printing press
One Sunday morning in early October, five secret police showed up in plain clothes at a house in Colon, Cuba, about 100 miles southeast of Havana. They entered the building and immediately called for reinforcements. A truck then arrived, carrying one dozen uniformed police with guns.
Police quickly seized a small printing press and various materials that had been published. They took Eliseo Rodriguez Matos to the local station to be interrogated. Caridad Diego, the minister of religion in Havana, was alerted because Matos, head of an Assembly of God church in Colon, had been printing copies of the biblical Gospel of John. Government officials called the copies “subversive and dangerous.” Minister Diego was quoted by World Net Daily as saying the printing press was “very dangerous.”
Ironically, “the (Cuban) Constitution recognizes the right of citizens to profess and practice any religious belief within the framework of respect for the law; however, in law and in practice, the government places restrictions on freedom of religion,” according to the International Religious Freedom Report 2004 by the U.S. Department of State.
Freedoms of expression and the press have nearly disappeared in Cuba in the 46 years that Fidel Castro has been in power. Today, individuals and the media can do little without being watched by the government.
Omar Rodriguez Saludes spoke for the thousands of silenced voices each year when he was quoted by the U.S. State Department in 2003. Saludes was a photographer who was sentenced to 27 years in prison for taking pictures that the government said “gave a distorted image of Cuban reality.”
“We know the risks we are taking,” Saludes said. “The risk is even in our homes. The government knows what we do, and it watches. They know our lives better than we do.”
To follow daily developments in Cuba concerning arrests of individuals and members of the press, go to www.cubanet.org
Bruce C. Swaffield is a professor of graduate studies in journalism at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. He is a member of the SPJ International Journalism Committee and may be contacted at email@example.com.