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Press Freedom: It’s Not a Global Competition

Rankings can promote a narrow, pious attitude toward rights and freedoms.

Quality of Life. Corruption. Happiness. Transparency. Democracy. Freedom of Speech. Freedom of the Press. Pollution. Education. Livable Cities. Gender Equality. Year in and year out we see indices for all of these factors. Now, I happen to reside in a small country (Sweden) which tends to score well in many of these socio-Olympic events. On the other hand, I am a citizen of a country (the US) which is a global superpower, yet doesn’t always (at least according to certain rankings) live up to the “Greatest Country in the World” billing it advertises on a daily basis.

Which brings us to World Press Freedom Day. Much of the discussion on this day will be about rankings and indices. About threats of imprisonment and physical violence against journalists in countries such as Iran, China, Turkey and Egypt. About the introduction of draconian censorship laws and fear of persecution for internet users in Russia and Ethiopia. About the use of extreme violence against journalists working in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And rightly so.

However, there is the risk that those of us who are lucky enough to live in parts of the world not impacted by war or authoritarianism will see these lists, read these stories, and congratulate ourselves for our accumulation of democratic capital.

These rankings can be important pieces of research and key points of departure for discussion and political action. But, viewed in isolation, they can also promote a narrow, pious attitude toward rights and freedoms in which there are global “winners” and “losers.” This competition to see who is the “most democratic” does little to help those in need, and can obscure the political, economic and military inter-connections between those who find themselves at the top and bottom of rankings.

The press situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, can hardly be divorced from post-9/11 foreign policy and the military intervention of the US and the UK (and the tacit approval of those occupations by other power-brokers). And, while Western political hay will be made from the low press freedom rankings of Iran, China, North Korea and Cuba, it is worth asking the extent to which the suppression of press freedoms in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain is not only condoned, but perhaps supported by Western allies. None of this is to say that the actions of those in power in these countries are being given an alibi, but rather that repression of speech and print—particularly at the state level—is rarely conducted in complete isolation from broader geo-politics.

In addition to our outward role, it is also important to look inward. Recent events in so-called “developed” nations hardly inspire confidence: PRISM; the detention of David Miranda at Heathrow; the seizure by the British authorities of computers from Guardian offices in London; the imprisonment for 35 years of US whistleblower Chelsea Manning; the threat of a US Grand Jury indictment for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange; and, the need for journalists such as Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras to live outside of the United States for fear of harassment and/or prosecution. These factors, and many more, have had a clear chilling effect in both the UK and US: supposed bastions of free speech and free press.

Looking inward means more than just looking at how states impact freedom, however. It also means looking at both the political economy of our media systems and the structural barriers impeding the participation of a truly representative cross-section of society in the work of journalism. Freedom of the press is impacted by not only state censorship and legislation, but also by considerable economic barriers to market entry, the potentially negative impact of advertising upon content and concentration of ownership. Freedom of the press is also impacted by the under-representation of women and minorities in positions of newsroom authority. Of course, it’s simple to deflect this discussion by pointing to those at the bottom of indices and using the “At-Least-We-Are-Not-As-Bad-As” line of reasoning. But, it seems a very thin argument to say that we should worry less about structural discrimination at home because things are worse abroad. Freedom means very little if large segments of a population are predetermined to be unsuitable, and thus not given access to that freedom.

So, on World Press Freedom Day let us keep an eye on the rankings, but avoid the temptation of turning freedom into a competition in which no-one wins.

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Christian Christensen

Christian Christensen

Christian Christensen, American in Sweden, is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrChristensen

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