Arab Spring? Still winter for press freedom

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 15, 2013 - 7:36 PM

An annual index examines conditions for journalists around the world.

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French photographer Remi Ochlik, shown here covering demonstrations in Cairo, and Marie Colvin, an American journalist working for a British newspaper, were killed in February in Syria during government shelling of an opposition stronghold.

Photo: Julien De Rosa, Associated Press

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Two years into the Arab Spring, a free press has yet to blossom. In fact, it's winter for many journalists in the Middle East and North Africa, the region with the world's lowest level of press freedom, according to the recently released "World Press Freedom Index."

The index, an annual analysis of press freedoms, is issued by the Parisian-based Reporters Without Borders. Headlined "Dashed Hopes Follow Spring," it chronicles the way many Mideast nations are still appalling places for journalists.

Of course, the Arab Spring has yet to topple all the region's bad actors. The Assad regime still runs war-torn Syria, which ranked 176th out of 179 (only totalitarian nations Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea were lower-ranked). In Iran (174th), the theocracy makes life hell for journalists -- and, sometimes, their families. Relatives of some journalists working abroad or for foreign news organizations have been imprisoned in a country the report calls "one of the five biggest prisons for news and information providers."

But it's not just America's adversaries who are harassing journalists. An ally, Bahrain (165th), has fallen 66 places in four years, which should be a bitter embarrassment to an Obama administration that quickly condemned countries like Libya, Yemen and Egypt when they were repressing the press.

Those three nations' nascent governments have hardly improved, either. Tunisia, where the Arab Spring first flowered, fell four places to 138th. Libya leapt past 23 countries, but still ranks 131st, and the report warns that the improvement needs to be constitutionally codified. And two years after Tahrir Square, Egypt still only ranks 158th, in part due to an unclear constitution, as well as heavy-handed editors installed by the ruling Muslim Brotherhood.

Surveying the still-repressive region, Delphine Halgand, Washington, D.C., director of Reporters without Borders, said in an interview that "there are various situations in the Arab Spring countries. In most of them we find a lot of difficulties. We're hoping that this newfound freedom will be translated into [press freedom] realities."

Halgand found some solace east of the Mideast, in Myanmar (also called Burma). Long led by the military, Myanmar languished in the bottom 15 for a decade. But internal reforms and international outreach have also meant media freedoms have increased, so it's up 18 places to rank 151st.

This doesn't mean Myanmar is a press freedom beacon. Nor does it mean repressive regimes don't need to be replaced. But notably, the improvement was the result of the government's evolution -- not a societal revolution -- proving that even oppressive states can open up.

"Amazing improvements were possible from an internal, nonviolent reform process, and that's something we should highlight to other regimes who may be interested to open more of their country," Halgand said.

Pressing for press reforms like those in Myanmar is one of the main objectives of the annual index. "If they [leaders] care about their international image, it's important," said Halgand, who added that U.S. diplomats could find it a useful tool when advocating for a freer press.

Indeed, our envoys should use the index internationally. But we should also back it up domestically.

The good news is that the U.S. ranking jumped 15 places. The bad news is we're still only 32nd, behind much of Europe (especially Scandinavian nations).

"They really have a tradition of open government, freedom of the press, and complete and very easy access to get open information," Halgand said. Conversely, she said, the inability to pass a federal shield law to protect sources, as well as a complicated, slow process of obtaining public information -- even with the Freedom of Information Act -- reduces the U.S. ranking.

That analysis is shared by the president of the Society of Professional Journalists, Sonny Albarado. "We'd love to see a shield law, because prosecutors still make a habit of trying to get reporters to divulge sources instead of using law enforcement abilities at their disposal," said Albarado, a city/projects editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He says the lack of political will also affects access to public data.

"The Freedom of Information Act is only as good as the people who decide to enforce it. The climate is such that we [journalists] are having to fight for every scrap of information we get."

Our leaders -- especially those who espouse "American exceptionalism" -- should shape policies with the intent of elevating America to the top of the World Press Freedom Index. Americans -- and the world that looks to us to model media freedom behavior -- deserve no less.

Otherwise, said Albarado, "internationally it sends a signal that governments that may not want to be open to their citizens probably get the idea that 'if the United States gets away with this chilling effect, maybe we can, too.' ... It shows that our beacon has dimmed."

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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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