Americans pay lip service to freedom of the press, but we don’t adequately appreciate or protect one of our most precious freedoms.
I spent the past three days in Lyon, France, at a conference on New Media in Russia, discussing media issues with journalists from Russia, the United States and at least four other European countries. The map above appeared at least twice on slides or videos, Russia standing out in red, not symbolizing the communism of days gone by, but the lack of progress since the fall of the Soviet Union — even the reversal of progress under the regime of President Vladimir Putin.
Red does not stand for the most repressive regimes. China, Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and a few other nations earned a black rating. Note that the United States is yellow, rather than white, the “good situation” designation.
Listening to the Russian journalists and professors speak about the restrictions and challenges they face and listening to American attorney Dick Winfield discuss the legal situation in Russia, I realized (again) that American journalists and citizens too often take our freedom for granted. We could learn a lot from the courage of our Russian colleagues.
After visiting Siberia in 2009, I reported about the pride in journalists and publishers there as they celebrated 20 years of independent press. Then and now, I am humbled by the courage and determination of my Russian colleagues to tell the stories of their country and hold the powerful accountable, risking prison and death in the process.
American journalists and media organizations lament the collapse of newspaper advertising, low digital advertising rates and our inability to develop successful business models to sustain large digital media organizations. The Russian journalists talked about how digital publishing has made it easier for journalists in their country to tell important stories that might otherwise be censored. Pasko’s panel discussed training programs for Russian bloggers.
Winfield, a co-founder of the International Senior Lawyers Project, which provides pro bono legal counsel in media freedom and other human rights cases around the world, told our conference that Russian courts punish thousands of journalists every year, mostly for defamation. Punishments can include fines and imprisonment.
The Russian courts every year punish thousands of journalists in Russia, mostly for defamation, says Dick Winfield. #russianmedia
— Steve Buttry (@stevebuttry) April 11, 2013
As the map shows, our situation is not nearly that dire. But it is nonetheless shameful. The nation that first enshrined freedom of press in its laws should not be yellow on that map.
Reporters in the United States are jailed (most often for protecting confidential sources) often enough that the First Amendment Center has a historical timeline of such cases. Despite promises of transparency, the Obama administration has protected secrecy in government as aggressively as any administration.
Even at the local level, governments around the country are suppressing information and fighting media efforts to hold them accountable. Just this week, my Digital First Media colleague Rick Mills, editor of the Morning Sun in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., wrote of a prosecutor and a magistrate illegally suppressing public court records in a murder case.
At the local level, the state level and the federal level — in courts, legislatures and executive offices — journalists need to shine lights in the places where the powerful operate in the dark.
In the Reporters Without Borders rankings of press freedom around the world, shown on the map above, the United States ranks 32nd, behind Suriname and just ahead of Lithuania. Think about that the next time someone tells you that terrorists hate us for our freedom. No one hates Suriname for its freedom. Or Ghana. Or Poland. Or Namibia. Or any of the other 31 nations that defend freedom of the press more vigorously than we do.
If people hate us, they hate us for our power. If we defended our freedom as vigorously as we defend our power, we’d be more likable.