When It Comes to Press Freedom, We’re Number 53!

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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.]

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