The headline from “World Press Freedom 2014,” published by Reporters Without Borders (RWB), was grave: The United States has plummeted in its rankings of 180 countries. From a not-so-great number 32 in 2013, we are now down to 48. When the group first produced its comprehensive “World Press Freedom” index in 2002, the United States was number 17. What happened?
Not so fast.
While troubling trends did emerge over the past year—chief among them the Obama Justice Department’s targeting of individual journalists, such as James Rosen of Fox News, and their sources—the other two cases cited by RWB as the reason for the ratings decline are deeply controversial and not exactly freedom-of-the-press cases.
One is the WikiLeaks scandal, which last year earned Private Bradley (“Chelsea”) Manning a 35-year jail term for leaking masses of national security documents to WikiLeaks. In 2013 also, CIA computer specialist Edward Snowden exposed the surveillance methods developed by the U.S. intelligence agencies. The U.S. media have reported on the both cases with impunity, even though national security has clearly been compromised.
The fact is that the country ranking methodology of RWB is in large part based on the unquantifiable impressions of 150 nongovernmental organizations through RWB’s questionnaires. Quantifiable data paint a different picture in the U.S.: No journalists have been killed or harmed in any way (as well they should not). One journalist and one netizen are listed as in jail, one for contempt of court for refusing to reveal sources, one for breaking into a congressional hearing.
On the map of “Press Freedom in the World 2014,” the U.S. is listed as “mostly good,” as is Australia and much of Europe.
Equally importantly, since 1972, the human rights organization Freedom House has published its “Freedom in the World” survey. According to this year’s edition, the U.S. continues to earn top scores with a 1.0 overall “freedom rating,” a 1 for political rights, and a 1 for civil rights.
Freedom House also publishes its own annual “Press Freedom in the World” survey. While this year’s report has not come out yet, the years 2006 and 2007 provide some insights. In those years, RWB accused the Bush Administration of declaring war on journalists who criticized U.S. military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it dropped the U.S. rating to 48. Meanwhile, in both years, Freedom House rated the United States 22 in its media survey.
RWB does a sterling service by exposing abuses in countries like Iran, Syria, North Korea, Russia, and China, where media and netizens are indeed often in mortal danger. The U.S., however, remains a defender of freedom around the globe. There is a world of difference.