The United States is no longer a role model for the rest of the world when it comes to press freedom. The (mis)conduct of the authorities in dealing with the Occupy movement has ensured that.
In a just-released report on the state of the media globallya just-released report on the state of the media globally, issued by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, the United States has tumbled twenty-seven places from last year to currently occupy a not-too-impressive forty-seventh, below such little-known champions of free expression as Suriname and Mali and on par with Romania and Argentina. (Finland and Norway top the 179-country list, with North Korea and Eritrea bringing up the rear.)
“The crackdown on protest movements and the accompanying excesses took their toll on journalists,” the report explains. “In the space of two months in the United States, more than twenty-five were subjected to arrests and beatings at the hands of police who were quick to issue indictments for inappropriate behavior, public nuisance or even lack of accreditation.”
Now, any such report can be debated six ways to Sunday. (Are the Surinamese and Malian authorities that respectful of the freedom of expression?) And to add to the muddle, there’s a complicated scoring system that I was unable to grasp fully, in spite of an appendix on methodology. But the report does have a point, something especially obvious to those of us who have been involved in, or who have been closely following, the protest movements over the past year. (For a riveting first-hand account by a protester of mistreatment by the police, read the February cover story of The Progressive.)
And even the big media are now getting perturbed. The New York Times recently complained about NYPD cops blocking their photographer from covering an Occupy rally (One officer actually placed his hand on the camera lens). Indeed, there is such a consensus in the New York area about police misconduct toward the media that more than a dozen prominent news organizations base there (ranging from AP and the New York Daily News to the local CBS and NBC affiliates) have signed onto a letter that the Times sent to the NYPD.
“There have been numerous reports of unfavorable treatment of credentialed members of the press,” the letter reads. “There have been other reports of police officers using a variety of tactics, ranging from inappropriate orders directed at some journalists to physical interference with others, who were covering newsworthy sites and events.”
The interesting accompanying note is how little coverage the Reporters Without Borders’ new rankings have gotten in the mainstream media. One of the few mentions I found was a derisive dismissal in an online New York Times blog by the paper’s Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal.
“I like Reporters Without Borders … but its annual Press Freedom Index, which ranks countries from 1 to 179, gets a little ridiculous,” writes Rosenthal, citing Hungary’s superior ranking to the United States as the prime exhibit. “Like US News & World Report with colleges, they freshen the list each year based on new developments, and—again like US News—they sometimes end up with a pecking order that doesn’t quite mesh with reality.”
There is certainly a lot to appreciate in this country when it comes to freedom of the press; without that, a publication like The Progressive could not exist. But when an international organization dedicated to media freedoms expresses concern about the state of such liberties in the country, the correct response is to pause and reflect—not to belittle or ignore the source.
If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of the Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "Bombing Iran Is not the Answer."
Follow Amitabh Pal @amitpal on Twitter