Shadow Government

A Bad Year for Press Freedom

Freedom House has issued its annual report on press freedom in the world and despite the excellent reporting it is depressing reading. It has not been a good year for one of the most important pillars of a free society. Nevertheless, monitoring like this is one of the reasons Freedom House is such a valuable ...

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Freedom House has issued its annual report on press freedom in the world and despite the excellent reporting it is depressing reading. It has not been a good year for one of the most important pillars of a free society. Nevertheless, monitoring like this is one of the reasons Freedom House is such a valuable asset for foreign policy practitioners and scholars alike. If one cares anything at all for the spread of freedom and its attendant consequences of democratic stability and prosperity, knowing the status of freedom in each country makes it possible for policy makers to do their jobs better.

The report can be found here, including some very helpful graphics, but I’d like to highlight two things.

First, while there is a lot of bad news in this report, an encouraging sign can be found when examining press freedom in a few countries that are moving away from tyranny and toward more representative government. The country making the greatest gains in press freedom according to Freedom House’s rubric applied from 2010 to 2014, is Tunisia. That is a bright spot for a Muslim majority country. And what is one of the very worst performers? Why, Iran of course, another Muslim majority country. What is the difference? Mainly that in the last few years, when the people rose up in each “Arab Spring” country to demand freedom and the rule of law, they won it in Tunisia while in Iran they were crushed as the West stood by and watched.

Second, the United States does not fare very well in this report. As a patriotic American, I always steel myself before reading the section on the United States. I have to squelch the temptation to call up my friends at Freedom House (who reside on all points on the political spectrum) and nitpick over parts of the study that make it appear that the United States can have anything in common with the autocracies of the world. But when a U.S. administration is judged worse than all its predecessors by a press that is quite often friendly to it, we should take the criticism to heart.

Prosecuting leakers is certainly the duty of any administration, but when the administration hypocritically leaks for its own benefit, is overzealous in its prosecution of reporters (recall the treatment of the AP and Fox News journalist James Rosen) and is combined with “rigid controls on the information coming out of the White House and government agencies” I think it is not only fair but also appropriate to critique us. From the report:

Although the U.S. Justice Department said in December that it would no longer seek to compel New York Times journalist James Risen to reveal a source in a long-running case, the Obama administration has used the 1917 Espionage Act to prosecute alleged leaks of classified information eight times, more than all previous administrations combined.

No U.S. administration has escaped criticism from Freedom House. But I find it ironic that an administration that came into office promising unprecedented transparency and openness as well as to lead by example in support of democratic freedom (in contrast to its predecessor) is hoisted by its own petard.

And this is not simply about domestic politics and partisan criticism of the Obama administration (the criticism is bipartisan and covers the spectrum of media outlets). The administration’s treatment of press freedom has an impact on our foreign policy, especially when the administration determines that it will be leading by example instead of “forcing” other states to comply with norms we approve of. Of course the United States has certainly not sunk to the level of Iran, Venezuela, or China when it comes to treating the media both as a tool and an enemy, but we diminish our moral authority when we stray too far from the spirit of the First Amendment. The Obama administration needs to show a better example when it comes to how governments should treat the press.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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