The United States Just Finished 46th in a Press-Freedom Contest

At least the birthplace of the First Amendment managed to come in one spot ahead of Haiti.
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Every year, Reporters Without Borders ranks 180 countries in order of how well they safeguard press freedom. This year, the United States suffered a precipitous drop.

The latest Press Freedom Index ranked the U.S. 46th. 

That puts us around the same place as UC Santa Barbara in the U.S. News and World Report college rankings. If we were on the PGA tour we'd be Jonas Blixt of Sweden. 

If we were on American Idol we'd have been sent home already.

Countries that scored better include Romania,  South Africa, Ghana, Cyprus, and Botswana. And 40 others. Put simply, it's an embarrassing result for the country that conceived the First Amendment almost 240 years ago. These rankings are always a bit arbitrary, but we're not anywhere close to the top tier these days. Why?

The report explains:

... the heritage of the 1776 constitution was shaken to its foundations during George W. Bush’s two terms as president by the way journalists were harassed and even imprisoned for refusing to reveal their sources or surrender their files to federal judicial officials. There has been little improvement in practice under Barack Obama. Rather than pursuing journalists, the emphasis has been on going after their sources, but often using the journalist to identify them. No fewer that eight individuals have been charged under the Espionage Act since Obama became president, compared with three during Bush’s two terms. While 2012 was in part the year of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, 2013 will be remember for the National Security Agency computer specialist Edward Snowden, who exposed the mass surveillance methods developed by the US intelligence agencies.

Elsewhere it notes:

US journalists were stunned by the Department of Justice’s seizure of Associated Press phone records without warning in order to identify the source of a CIA leak. It served as a reminder of the urgent need for a “shield law” to protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources at the federal level. The revival of the legislative process is little consolation for James Risen of The New York Times, who is subject to a court order to testify against a former CIA employee accused of leaking classified information. And less still for Barrett Brown, a young freelance journalist facing 105 years in prison in connection with the posting of information that hackers obtained from Statfor, a private intelligence company with close ties to the federal government.

Some Americans reading those critiques will object that terrorism is a real threat, and insist that national security and freedom of the press must be balanced. Even if you agree in principle, consider the countries that rank highest on the 2014 Press Freedom Index. Here are the top 10: Finland, Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Denmark, Iceland, New Zealand, and Sweden. 

Raise your hand if you're afraid to visit any of those countries.

Does anyone truly believe that the way they treat the press is imperiling their security, or that America couldn't prosper even if it was as friendly to the press as Finland? Does Team Obama believe that the terrorists are going to win in Sweden, New Zealand, and Iceland because their balance is too press-freedom friendly? 

Take it from Lee Greenwood. "I'm proud to be an American because at least I know I'm freer than 47th-ranked Haiti" just doesn't have the same exceptionalist ring to it.

The index methodology is here. Having looked it over, I still want the U.S. to be on top next year. How about you?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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