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As democracies turn

In a letter to a friend in January 1787 on the essence of democracy, America’s third President, Thomas Jefferson, paid the ultimate compliment to the press:

The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.1

Much as President Abraham Lincoln didn’t think his Gettysburg address would be long remembered, Jefferson probably never thought these words would become public, let alone continue to resonate more than 230 years later. Yet, they couldn’t be more pertinent in the America—and the world—of 2020.

From 2016 to 2020, the United States had a president who took the diametrically opposite stance. President Donald Trump repeatedly declared the press “an enemy of the people.’’ And he sought to propagate that view by repeating it, as though a matter of habit, in tweets and remarks. He termed every news that was not to his liking “fake news,” extending the label even to the most respected news operation in the United States, the New York Times.

Trump even sent an ominous “cease and desist” letter to CNN demanding that the network withdraw and apologize for a news story on an opinion poll. The offense was that the poll had him substantially trailing rival Joseph Biden in voter preference in the presidential election of 2020. So, Jefferson and Trump couldn’t differ more in their view of the press.

In choosing the press over government, Jefferson wasn’t expressing disdain for the latter. After all, he was active in political leadership through much of his adult life. He was only extolling the free press as the pulse of democracy. It is in that spirit that this chapter examines press freedom around the world as a comparative measure of commitment to democracy.

Over the years, various organizations have developed indices for comparing countries in this regard. Most notable are Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders (or RSF, the French acronym). Of the two, RSF’s index is the more ideologically neutral as it is determined primarily on the basis of infractions against the press. Though limited as a measure of the robustness of press systems, it provides much insight into how countries fluctuate in their democratic ethos with changing situations. And that’s without regard for regions.

In general, Northern European countries dominate RSF’s top rankings; South and East Asian and Middle Eastern countries cluster at the bottom; and African, Central, and South American countries occupy the middle range. But countries don’t necessarily conform to regional patterns, nor do they always approximate a giving ranking.

When the RSF index was first released in October 2002, the United States was ranked 17 among the 139 countries measured. By 2005, however, it had plummeted to 44th out of 167 countries. And in 2019 it was further down at 48th out of 180 countries. In the 2005 index, 12 non-Western countries, including 6 in Africa, ranked higher than Italy (42nd) and the United States. Of the African countries, Benin and Namibia (tied at 25th) were also ranked higher than France (30) and Australia (31). And they were very much at par with Portugal (23) and the UK. (24).

The 2019 index shows a similar pattern of regional dispersion. The United States maintained approximately the same ranking (48th) and was surpassed by 14 non-Western countries, including 6 in Africa. Two of the non-Western countries—Jamaica (8th) and Costa Rica (10th)—also outranked most Western European and North American countries, including Portugal, Germany, Ireland, France, the UK, and Canada. And three of the African countries (Namibia, Cape Verde, and Ghana) outranked Spain, France, the UK, and Italy.

China consistently ranked at the bottom of the indexes, along with other repressive governments such as Eritrea, North Korea, and Turkmenistan. And despite Kagame’s protestations, Rwanda too has consistently ranked low. After starting at 108th in 2002, it sank to 122nd in 2005 and to 155th in 2019.

These rankings are not surprising by any means. What might surprise is the relatively low ranking of the United States, the world’s trailblazer in modern democracy. It speaks to the impact of violence or threats to the political order. The 2002 index was issued just months after al-Qaeda’s September 11 attack. “The poor ranking of the United States (17th) is mainly because of the number of journalists arrested or imprisoned there,” RSF explains in the report. “Arrests are often because they refuse to reveal their sources in court. Also, since the 11 September attacks, several journalists have been arrested for crossing security lines at some official buildings.”2

The infractions intensified after the United States invaded Iraq 2003 in connection with the al-Qaeda attack. By 2005, the rationale for the invasion had unraveled and the occupation had become highly controversial. Press coverage became correspondingly contentious, as did infractions against the press. That is reflected in America’s low ranking of 44th in the 2005 index.

In the first several years after the invasion, the United States largely administered Iraq. RSF called the area under U.S. control the “United States of America (in Iraq)” and ranked it 137th, placing it close to the bottom. Iraq itself got a separate and even lower ranking at 157th. “The situation in Iraq ... deteriorated further during the year as the safety of journalists became more precarious,” RSF states.

At least 24 journalists and media assistants have been killed so far this year, making it the mostly deadly conflict for the media since World War II. A total of 72 media workers have been killed since the fighting began in March 2003?

The United States itself fell further in the 2019 index because of President Trump’s intensely combative stance toward the press. “Press freedom has continued to decline in the second year of President Donald Trump’s presidency,” RSF writes in its summation.

Rhetorical attacks from the government and private individuals alike grew increasingly hostile, and in June they became physical when a gunman entered the Capita! Gazette newsroom in Maryland, killing four journalists and one other staffer in a targeted attack on the local newspaper. Since then, President Trump has continued to declare the press as the ‘enemy of the American people’ and ‘fake news’ in an apparent attempt to discredit critical reporting.4

Italy’s low rankings also resulted from its compromised press system. For extended periods, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was also a dominant media tycoon. That was in a country that also had substantial government-run media. It was the equivalent of President Trump also being the owner of the major news media in the United States. There would be no “fake news,” just compromised news and opinions.

Back to the United States, the pressure on the press in the context of the war against terrorism is merely a shadow of the experience during its only civil war. Though that was in the mid-19th century, the context is comparable to that of many developing countries in the 21st. The civil war press on both sides was heavily censored. Actually, on the side of the Confederacy, there wasn’t much reason to censor. The press was generally conformist. Most Southern newspapers supported the war, and those who didn’t knew better than to dissent.

It was on the Union side that overt censorship was more pronounced. Though the official regulation of the press was mild, the generals evoked military codes to censor the press. General William Tecumseh Sherman, whose war campaign brought the war to an end, reputedly said that an army cannot win a war with a free press. Accordingly, as many as 43 newspapers were ransacked by mobs, often with the active participation of soldiers.5 Even the loyalist newspapers were not spared when their contents were deemed too adversarial or otherwise unhelpful.

Given these realities of press freedom in the West, democratic governments elsewhere don’t feel apologetic when they employ harsh measures against the press. They see them as necessary within their political colorations. Nigeria and India—two countries that take pride in having robust press systems—are good examples.

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