Freedom of the press ain’t so free anymore

February 20, 2015 

Beset by wars, the growing threat from non-state operatives, violence during demonstrations and the economic crisis, media freedom is in retreat on all five continents, said Reporters sans Frontieres.

Many years ago, when I was a Nieman fellow at Harvard University, a colleague and friend from Uganda, Charles Unyongo-Obbo, and I were the last two people to leave a function. As we walked out into the crisp fall air of Cambridge I noticed that Charles was scanning up and down the street. I asked him what was wrong.

“I’m just looking for the police car,” he told me. “I know there won’t be any police cars here but I can’t afford to let my guard down because when I go back home they will be there.”

Charles’ comments had a profound effect on the way I saw the world of journalism. In the United States (and in Canada, where I was working at the time) freedom of the press is taken for granted. Basically we can say and write whatever we like, without fear of the kind of consequences that my friend from Uganda worried about. And I think because of that illusion of press freedom, first world journalists often lose sight of the fact that reporting is a dangerous, often thankless business for most journalists in the world. 

I thought of Charles once again as I read Reporters Without Borders/Reporters Sans Frontieres’ latest report on world press freedoms. The picture that the report paints is not a cheery one.

“According to the Paris-based watchdog’s latest World Press Freedom Index, published Thursday, two-thirds of the 180 countries surveyed performed less well than in 2013, while there was an 8 percent increase in the number of violations of freedom of information in 2014 compared to the year before,” Agence-France Press reported.

There were the usual suspects of course. China, Vietnam, North Korea, Iran, and Cuba were all near the bottom of the rankings. After a relatively short flourishing, press freedom in Russia is almost gone. All the countries in the Middle East did poorly.

But it was this comment that really caught my eye.

“Beset by wars, the growing threat from non-state operatives, violence during demonstrations and the economic crisis, media freedom is in retreat on all five continents,” said RSF.

That’s a pretty alarming statement: “In retreat on all five continents.” And that includes the one on which I live, North America.

Because as much as we would like to believe that we have unlimited free press in the U.S., that’s often not the case. In fact, in terms of the RSF world rankings, the United States fell 3 spots last year to 49th place out of 180. Some of the countries that finished ahead of the United States: Namibia, Costa Rica, Ghana, Uruguay, Cyprus, Tonga, El Salvador (which is truly stunning) and Malta.

Freedom of the press in North America, and in the United States in particular, faces numerous threats: economic censorship where businesses of all sizes threaten reporters with economic and legal retaliations for unfavorable stories; increasing concentration of control of the media in a handful of huge corporations and a few dozen media executives; police actions against reporters such as those in Ferguson, Missouri, where the police rounded up numerous members of the media in order to prevent them from covering the polices tactics in that racially torn city; and most important, government actions against the media like the many ones undertaken by the Obama administration.

For all of its liberal policies on issues like immigration, gay marriage, contraception and similar progressive issues, no administration in recent memory has been so unfriendly to the media nor has taken so many legal actions meant to silence the press – such as suing reporters who have written about important leaks that have embarrassed the government – nor has carried out so many illegal actions itself in order to spy on the media. (See the many reports from WikiLeaks and on Edward Snowden.

One might argue that the proliferation of media sites on the Internet and social media would counteract this development to some degree. And it has, but not by very much. With one or two notable exceptions (ProPublica in particular), most well-known Internet media sites in the US spent far too much of their time concentrating on click-bait stories, celebrity news, and water cooler tidbits. 

A country often gets the press it deserves, particularly in the Western world. While we have no dictatorships in countries like the United States, Canada, Britain, France or Australia, we do have governments which will do everything in their power to reduce the importance of media and any unfavorable coverage of their actions.

And most Americans have grown fat, lazy and complacent about freedom of the press because of the illusion that it is unlimited. While we may have more talking heads giving their opinions on the air, in print and online than Medusa had snakeheads, important stories like government abuse of privacy in the name of a nebulous security are in danger of being silenced before they can even be reported.

“The press doesn’t stop publishing, by the way, in a fascist escalation; it simply watches what it says,” American author Naomi Wolf wrote. “That too can be an incremental process, and the pace at which the free press polices itself depends on how journalists are targeted.”

Copyright Tom Regan 2015

Contact Tom Regan: 


Reporters Sans Frontieres report:!/presentation

Mass Internet Surveillance Unlawful: Guardian

Wikileaks report by the New York Times:

Democracy Now, on Edward Snowden




Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Film Board in Canada, and for the Christian Science Monitor and Boston Globe newspapers, and National Public Radio, in the United States. A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.







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