U.S. Press Freedom Fell 27 Places Last Year to 47th in the World

Why the media became less free in America, the Middle East, and China, but freer in Africa

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Police officers shove freelance photographer Andrew Kelly to the ground while he taking pictures of demonstrators affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement / AP

Here are a few of the countries that, according to watchdog Reporters Without Borders, currently enjoy greater press freedom than the United States: Ghana, South Africa, El Salvador, Niger, Mali, Jamaica, Slovakia, Uruguay, and virtually all of the developed world, from Western Europe to East Asia. Out of 179 countries, the U.S., which found independence and democracy on the back of the printing press, is now the 47th most free. Fortunately, we are still ranked ahead of Latvia and Haiti, though just barely.

Reporters Without Borders' just-out World Press Freedom Index, which uses a complex point system to track and compare journalistic freedoms, describes a number of countries eroding those rights in the past year, including the U.S. Our own ranking dropped to 47th place from 20th the year before. According to the report, the decline came as police cracked down on journalists who were covering mass gatherings, often as part of the "occupy" movements. Here's the Reporters Without Borders report:

The crackdown on protest movements and the accompanying excesses took their toll on journalists. In the space of two months in the United States, more than 25 were subjected to arrests and beatings at the hands of police who were quick to issue indictments for inappropriate behaviour, public nuisance or even lack of accreditation.

Just Wednesday, the New York Times complained that New York City police have been physically obstructing photographers to prevent them from documenting arrests. Representatives from 13 different news organizations signed a letter deploring police restrictions on the media.

One irony of the growing restrictions is that a number of the affected outlets play an important role in many of the world's closed societies, especially in China and the Middle East, where American journalists are allowed a degree of freedom that domestic reporters never would be. The American press may have brought disinfecting sunlight into the early American colonies, and they may be doing some of that same important work around the world today, but in 2011 they had about the same freedom at home as would a Romanian.

The best news in the report comes from Africa. The poor and sparsely populated Saharan nation of Niger jumped 75 places to 29th. The report cites a "successful transition" by the new administration, which so far seems to be earnestly reforming this long-troubled state. The new president has made expanding Niger's free media a priority and so far is succeeding. It's part of a broader trend of improving African media freedoms that is far from continent-wide but is helping to open a number of African societies.

The worst media restrictions in the world are still in the Middle East and in the world's great dictatorships -- China, Iran, Turkmenistan, North Korea -- which continue to dominate the bottom of the list. The Arab Spring and China's insecurity about unrest provoked harsh crackdowns on media there, with a number of journalists intimidated, arrested, or outright killed. As the watchdog's report points out, repressive governments often target the media when they want to stifle popular organization:

Many media paid dearly for their coverage of democratic aspirations or opposition movements. Control of news and information continued to tempt governments and to be a question of survival for totalitarian and repressive regimes. The past year also highlighted the leading role played by netizens in producing and disseminating news.

Crackdown was the word of the year in 2011. Never has freedom of information been so clo- sely 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.

Seeing the simultaneous declines in press freedom in the U.S. and in the Middle East -- two places that we'd like to think could not be more different -- is an important reminder that a free press is an important tool promoting democratic society, but it is vulnerable to the same sorts of repression no matter where it's located.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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