World press freedom: 4 key takeaways

The NSA and Edward Snowden played a big role in where the US ranked on Reporters Without Borders' annual index of media freedom. 

Alejandro Cegarra
A woman with her mouth covered stands before a line of National Bolivarian Police preventing protesters from reaching the national intelligence agency in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014. Her sign reads in Spanish, "Freedom of expression. It's yours. Defend it." Venezuela ranked 116th on Reporters Without Borders's 2014 media freedom index.

When it comes to global media freedom, the quick assumption is that developed, solidly democratic countries are the star performers.

For the most part, they are. But as Reporters Without Borders' 2014 press freedom index  underscores, their high rankings come with some important caveats.

RSF's annual index ranks 180 countries based on freedom of information and the ease of reporting. The international watchdog found in its latest assessment that global violations of information freedom overall rose by 1.8 percent, a trend that affected countries of all political and economic stripes.

Below are four key takeaways from the report. 

Snowden played a big role in much-watched countries.  

This year's best performers (Finland, Norway, The Netherlands) are not surprising – and neither and the autocratic worst performers (Turkmenistan, North Korea, Eritrea).

But RSF found that the democratic powerhouses fell far short of setting a global example.

RSF slams the United States for cracking down on Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden (on whose behalf the organization advocates) downgrading it by 13 points from last year’s ranking in “one of the most significant declines” in media freedom worldwide. The US is now in the 46th spot, behind Papua New Guinea and Romania and just ahead of Haiti. It is worth noting, however, that the US ranked 47th in 2011, and 53rd in 2006. Its highest ranking – 17th place – was in 2002, the year RSF started the index.

The main culprit, according to RSF: “an overly broad and abusive interpretation of national security needs.” Or, more specifically, “the hunt for leaks and whistleblowers.” 

The UK fell as well – albeit by only three points – for "distinguishing itself by its harassment of The Guardian," which similarly took place in the wake of the Snowden scandal. 

Armed conflict remains a top threat to freedom of information ... 

Violent conflicts again drew a host of countries to the bottom of the list, including Syria (177th), Democratic Republic of Congo (151th), and Mali (122th). “In an unstable environment, the media become strategic goals and targets for groups or individuals [attempting] to control news and information,” the report says

A key trend here is that violence is increasingly getting privatized. Non-state armed groups across the Middle East (such as ISIS in Iraq and Syria) and Africa (Al Shabab in Somalia) increasingly regard journalists as enemies or targets in their campaigns of intimidation.  

…but other forms of violence imperil journalists outside war zones.

One of those forces is organized crime, which makes it “hard if not impossible to refrain from self-censorship on such sensitive subjects as drug-trafficking, corruption and criminal penetration of the state apparatus,” according to RSF. These risks are often met with passivity or indifference by local governments.

Brazil was singled out as one of the continent’s deadliest places for reporters. Media independence and pluralism are hampered by powerful politicians with ownership stakes in huge businesses and media companies. This turns Brazil into “the country of 30 Berlusconis,” a reference to Italy's powerful former prime minister and media magnate, with journalists as “tools of local barons.”

The Internet isn’t helping global media freedom much

RSF peppers its report with stories of tacit and overt cyberspace controls keeping journalists – both professional and citizen reports – under the government’s thumb. 

Among the worst offenders: China has continued its crackdown on bloggers and cyber-dissidents, keeping it in 175th place, five spots from the bottom. Targeting of bloggers and citizen reporters has been on the rise in Russia (148th) in the run-up to the Winter Games in Sochi, in particular when their activities directly touched on the preparation process. Bloggers are also under assault in Egypt, where they’re harassed and arrested alongside journalists, as the government cracks down on suspected Muslim Brotherhood supporters. The list goes on.

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