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Press Freedom is a Luxury

Silenzio. Press Freedom under Fire in Italy, photo: Zingaro. I am a gipsy too/flickr

Silenzio. Press freedom under fire in Italy, photo: Zingaro. I am a gipsy too/flickr

Not many countries on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index 2009 have reason to celebrate. The index sees many countries like Iran and Israel, quite predictably, slip as a consequence of protests, wars and crackdowns in the past year.

While it may not be a surprise that reporters in conflict zones or in countries that are slipping deeper into authoritarianism face severe restrictions and harassment, countries that have always prided themselves on their freedom and openness are slipping down the ranks at an alarming rate.

As the accompanying analysis suggests, several EU members, most notably France and Italy, have slipped down the index and now find themselves ranked in places 43 and 49, respectively, well below countries like Jamaica, South Africa, Mali, Uruguay and Macedonia; countries that may not always have been associated with the concept of free press. In Berlusconi’s fiefdom this is no surprise, but why is France almost as badly off as Italy? And, one might add, why is Spain ranked just one below France at place 44? What is wrong with the grand old dames of Europe?

Some other interesting facts pop up from the index. Although Nordic countries dominate the top five, Iceland has slipped from the top spot in 2008 to 9th place in 2009. The question of course is: What happened to the Icelandic press as the country grappled with the near total collapse of its economy in the fall of 2008? Under economic stress journalists seem to suffer and see their freedom of maneuver severely curtailed, a worrying trend given the trajectory of the global economy. On a positive note, at the epicenter of that crisis, US press freedom during the Obama administration has improved, landing the US on a shared 20th spot with the United Kingdom.

For more information on the issue check out our Freedom of Press keyword, and individual publications such as an Institute of War and Peace Reporting article on the state of Syria’s media; a Security Watch article by Simon Roughneen on the question of freedom of speech in Southeast Asia, an OpenDemocracy article by Geoff Andfrews on the recent developments in the Berlusconi saga, and an Afrobarometer paper that surveys the attitudes of the Batswana people toward freedom of press in Botswana.