Reporters Sans Frontières recently released its annual ranking of press freedom around the world, and it's not good news for the United States. Our ranking's been steadily dropping since the survey started in 2002, when we were in the index's top 20. Now we're at a dismal 53rd place, down from an undistinguished 44th last year. That puts us in the same league as tiny democracies like Botswana, Croatia, and Tonga. To be sure, we're a long way from the atrocious rankings of Iran, China, Burma, Cuba, and North Korea. But it's nothing to write home about.
The United States' poor showing is largely to blame on the excesses of the war on terror. As RSF explains, "Relations between the media and the Bush administration sharply deteriorated after the president used the pretext of 'national security' to regard as suspicious any journalist who questioned his 'war on terrorism.'" And then there's the journalists we've got locked up, such as a Sudanese Al-Jazeera cameraman being held in Guantanamo, and Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein, who's been in U.S. custody in Iraq for 6 months without charge. That's just the official hostility to the press. During the past year, right-wing commentators debated whether the editor of the New York Times should be sent to the gas chamber or the firing squad for revealing a program to track terrorist funds. It's not clear whether this episode figured into RSF's rankings, but it was another sign of why, when it comes to freedom of expression, we've got a long way to Number One.
[Ed. Note: This week's Sports Illustrated carries an excellent column on Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, the San Francisco Chronicle reporters who used leaked grand jury testimony to blow the lid off the steroid scandal. They'll be heading to jail soon for failing to reveal their sources, and may still be in the big house when Barry Bonds, documented to have commited several crimes in Fainaru-Wada and Williams' reporting, breaks baseball's all-time home run record.
A detail from the column, which unfortunately is subscription-only: The Chronicle has received 80 subpoenas of reporters over the last 18 months, compared with five over the previous 18. That's the world's strongest democracy, leading by example.]
Over at Harper's, Ken Silverstein reports that the U.S. government is paying $17,500 a month to a rent one of its overseas embassies from a known torturer. The torturer in question is Manuel Nguema Mba, the security minister of Equatorial Guinea, a tiny, oil-rich West African nation that, as Peter Maass wrote in an investigative story in Mother Joneslast year, seems like a "parody of an oil kleptocracy," where "a dictator, awash in petrodollars, enriches himself and his family while starving his people."
In his article, Maass disclosed the rental deal with Mba (who's the uncle of the country's despot, Teodoro Obiang), but Silverstein adds some new wrinkles to the story. Despite reliable documentation from the U.N. and the State Department, our ambassador to E.G. has pled ignorance of Mba's human-rights record. The Clinton-era ambassador is calling for an investigation into the deal.
Sadly, it's not surprising that we're giving $210,000 a year to a man who has overseen the torture of dissidents. Pay-to-play is the name of the game in E.G.it's a game that several American oil companies have played in order to get access to the country's crude. (In one egregiousbut not atypicalinstance, Amerada Hess paid $445,800 in rent to a 14-year-old relative of Obiang.) And apparently it's a game that the Bush administration doesn't mind playing, either.
Yesterday, Sen. Rick Santorum tried to explain the war in Iraq by drawing an analogy to the Lord of the Rings:
As the hobbits are going up Mount Doom, the Eye of Mordor is being drawn somewhere else.... It's being drawn to Iraq and it's not being drawn to the U.S. You know what? I want to keep it on Iraq. I don't want the Eye to come back here to the United States.
Really, Santorum should have known better. By invoking LOTR, he was inviting the scrutiny of hordes of Tolkien fans, who, sure enough, are unleashing their fantasy-lit fury on him. First off, Santorum called it the Eye of Mordor, when it's really the Eye of Sauron. Jeeze! Scott Rosenberg exposes more flaws in Santorum's comments:
First of all, in Tolkien's saga, the good guys are outgunned and outmanned by the Dark Lord, whereas in our world, the U.S. is a "hyperpower" whose military, in 2001-2, seemed to bestride the world. Second, in Tolkien, the good guys sent Frodo with the Ring into the depths of Mordor as a sort of last-ditch, bet-everything gamble; then they sent an army to the gates of Mordor as a diversion to keep the Eye occupied and distract it from the hobbits headed for Mount Doom.
David Weigel at Reason's Hit and Run further explains how Santorum's comments failed to reflect the geopolitical complexities of Middle Earth:
Was Santorum referring to the hobbits' final approach up Mount Doom, when Aragorn (George Bush) was convincing the men of Gondor (Tony Blair) and Rohan (John Howard) to make a final, diversionary push at the Black Gates? Or is he referring to the entire quest of Frodo and Sam (300 million Americans), which was aided at various points by mystical creatures - the Ents, the Dead Men of Dunharrow - that don't have any easy relations in the real war on terror?
And Rosenberg again:
It's hard, in truth, to find any useful Middle Earth analogy to the Iraq War: the parallels break down across the board. Still, you might think of Bush's invasion of Iraq as the equivalent of a beleaguered Gondor, attacked by the armies of Mordor across the River Anduin, sending its army off on an expedition to Far Harad, after its leaders issued proclamations that the White Council had incontrovertible evidence of the Haradrim's possession of Rings of Mass Destruction.
So wait, if Bush is Aragorn, does that mean Condi Rice is Arwen?
Over at the Nation, the ever-prolific Tom Engelhardt speculates about what he thinks could be the GOP's November Surprise: the November 5 sentencing of Saddam Hussein. Assuming that Saddam is guaranteed to get the death penalty, the White House could get itself a nice last-minute blip of "progress" to sell to voters. Clearly, the timing will work well for Bush & Co. Whether that's a happy coincdence is subject to debate. But as law prof and blogger Scott Horton tells Engelhardt,
"When you look at polling figures," Horton said," there have been three significant spike points. One was the date on which Saddam was captured. The second was the purple fingers election. The third was Zarqawi being killed. Based on those three, it's easy to project that they will get a mild bump out of this....This is not coincidence.... Nothing in Iraq that's set up this far in advance is coincidental."
But would this "mild bump" be enough to revive Republicans' fortunes at the polls? It's not like the Democrats won't cheer Saddam's descent to death row, so the Republicans would have to work fast to turn this into a partisan issue (not that they won't try their darndest). And in the eyes of many Americans, Saddam's hardly the WMD-toting bogeyman he was three years ago; he's no Osama, no matter how much the "Saddam was behind 9/11" crowd wishes he was. With support for the war at an all-time low, it's hard for me to see how this verdict will change many war-weary minds, much less energize a disheartened GOP base.