Rash Report: 'Crackdown' defined year in press freedom

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 4, 2012 - 9:50 AM

Steep drop in World Press Freedom Index depletes diplomatic outreach.

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Protesters demonstrate in front of the Libyan Embassy, in solidarity with protesters of Libya, in Cairo, Feb. 20, 2011.

Photo: Ed Ou, New York Times

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The Arab Spring was the biggest story in the Middle East in 2011. Unfortunately, it's still difficult to report on its aftermath in many of the nations most impacted by the pan-Arabic protest movement.

That's the conclusion of Reporters Without Borders, the press freedom organization that recently released its "World Press Freedom Index 2011-2012."

"Crackdown was the word of the year in 2011," the report from the Paris-based organization stated. "Never has freedom of information been so closely associated with democracy. Never have journalists, through their reporting, vexed the enemies of freedom so much. Never have acts of censorship and physical attacks on journalists seemed so numerous. The equation is simple: The absence or suppression of civil liberties leads necessarily to the suppression of media freedom. Dictatorships fear and ban information, especially when it may undermine them."

Dictatorships were undermined, and eventually fell, in three North African nations: Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. But the impact on press freedom was mixed.

In Tunisia, where Arab Spring took root, a freer press has sprouted, too: Tunisia jumped 30 places to 134th, as journalists are no longer habitually harassed and the Internet is no longer routinely filtered.

But the report also warned of backsliding in Tunisia, which is what happened in Egypt. After thousands filled Tahrir Square and forced Hosni Mubarak to cede power, his holdovers have at times reverted to repression reminiscent of the Mubarak-era. As a result, Egypt actually fell from 127th to 166th on the list.

As in Tunisia, the situation in Libya is promising but precarious. The fall of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has resulted in a burst of new media options. But prior to Libya's liberation, the abuse of journalists was so widespread that the country only edged up from 160 to 154. The report said Libya could leap in its ranking if its new leaders live up to their ideals.

The state of press freedom is worse where protests have yet to topple longtime leaders. Yemen (171st), Bahrain (173rd) and Syria (176th) are among the world's worst places for reporters.

The riveting images of people power, especially from Cairo, captivated the world. They also may have helped inspire the Occupy Wall Street movement that mushroomed beyond Manhattan.

But here, too, a crackdown on the encampments also occasionally swept up the press, particularly in New York. "In the space of two months in the United States, more than 25 [journalists] were subjected to arrests and beatings at the hands of police who were quick to issue indictments for inappropriate behavior, public nuisance or even lack of accreditation," according to Reporters Without Borders.

It's because of this treatment, as well as a lack of a national shield law that would better allow journalists to protect their sources, that the United States plunged from 20th to 47th in the press freedom index, said Delphine Halgand, the Washington, D.C., director of Reporters without Borders.

"This big decline, I hope, will mostly be interpreted as a wake-up call," she said. "We're a strong democracy, with freedom of expression, and freedom of expression is guaranteed by our Constitution. We just can't forget that journalists in our own country have to be able to do their jobs freely."

Whether we deserve to be ranked below Botswana (43rd) is subject to debate.

What isn't debatable is that the perception problem can debilitate diplomacy.

"It's long been the case that the governments which have problems [with] human rights in their countries will point directly to what is happening in the U.S.," said Tom Hanson, a former foreign-service officer who is now diplomat-in-residence at the Alworth Institute at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

"One of the main messages that the U.S. has in its diplomacy overseas is the importance of a free press and movement towards civil society and democratic reform. So a report like this just directly undercuts what is the primary message of U.S. foreign policy."

Compared with countries affected by the Arab Spring, American freedoms know no season -- and press freedom is critical to our free society. Any backsliding is not only a threat to our way of life. It also limits our ability to convince other countries to aspire to our ideals.

The Rash Report can be heard at 7:50 a.m. weekdays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. Follow John Rash on Twitter: @rashreport.

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