Most Americans believe that the USA provides the highest levels of freedom and democracy anywhere in the world. This belief is also held by many people outside the USA. Is this belief based on fact, or is it simply a myth? I’ve chosen five countries for a comparison: USA, France, Japan, South Africa and New Zealand. The selection is purely arbitrary, but I have selected one country from the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceania. There are many non-governmental organisations that monitor levels of freedom, and I have selected published results from just a few. Again the selection is purely arbitrary. I’m not trying to do a precise measurement of the levels of freedom but simply to gather enough evidence to support the claim that “America is the land of the free”. This post, the first of several on this topic, will look at press freedom. At the end of the series I will give my subjective opinion on whether the statement is fact or myth.
Reporters Without Borders is the largest press freedom organization in the world with almost 30 years of experience. Thanks to its unique global network of 150 local correspondents investigating in 130 countries, 12 national offices (Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Libya, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia, USA) and a consultative status at the United Nations and UNESCO, Reporters Without Borders is able to have a global impact by gathering and providing on the ground intelligence, conducting cybersecurity workshops, and defending and assisting news providers all around the world.
Reporters Without Borders evaluates press freedom in approximately 180 countries each year. This year it ranked the USA 49th (score: 24.41), France 38th (21.15), Japan 61st (score: 26.95), South Africa 39th (score: 22.06), and New Zealand 6th (score: 10.06) . The top three countries were Finland (7.52), Norway (7.75), and Denmark (8.24). The countries with the lowest levels of press freedom were Eritrea (84.83), North Korea ( 81.96), and Turkmenistan (80.81). Of the five countries, only New Zealand was rated with a good situation Press Freedom Index. The USA, France and South Africa were rated satisfactory situation, while Japan was rated noticeable problems. The USA ranking of 49th surprised me as I had thought the country would be in the top 10 countries and higher placed than New Zealand. I’m not sure why it received such a poor rating as I’m not aware of any US laws that limit press freedom more than in NZ. Perhaps the American press self censors more than the Kiwi press?
Part 2 of this series can be found here.
15 Feb, 2015 at 1:31 pm
I’m interested in reading more of this series, Barry. As an American, I can tell you without a doubt that most Americans suffer from an unwarranted superiority complex. I love living in America and don’t know that I’d really want to live anywhere else. But I think that we’re not as great as many Americans seem to think, when look at things quantitative, comparative statistics like education levels, medical services, the homicide and violent crime rates, etc.
I, too, am surprised by the mediocre rating when it comes to freedom of the press and may have to do some looking into that.
By the way, it’s good to see you back here, Barry, after a rather lengthy absences from blogging.
15 Feb, 2015 at 3:05 pm
It’s good to be back.
15 Feb, 2015 at 1:43 pm
By the way, I just found another ranking of Freedom of the Press as rated by Freedom House. In that one, the US ranked 30th, tied with Micronesia and Austria. New Zealand ranked 22nd, tied with Portugal, Costa Rica, and Barbados. You can review that here.
15 Feb, 2015 at 3:03 pm
There is a breakdown of each score by Legal, Political and Economic categories. Country comparisons are interesting:
USA: 21 (L: 6; P: 10; E: 5)
France: 22 (L:5; P:10; E: 7)
Japan: 25 (L: 5; P:14; E: 6)
South Africa: 33 (L: 9; P: 14; E: 10)
New Zealand: 18 (L: 3; P: 8; E: 7)
The most obvious disparity between Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders is the scores for South Africa. I know different methodologies are used, but the two South African scores are so different you could be mistaken for thinking there are two different places.
Of the five countries, it’s interesting to note that New Zealand scores best in the Legal and Political categories, while the US scores best in the Economic category.
15 Feb, 2015 at 2:10 pm
Great post, Barry. Some things that might be working against US press freedom is the Patriot Act and recent crackdown on people who leak classified data. Also, broadcasting is on Federally approved airways, which issues content restrictions on some things. I don’t know if that translates into press censorship, though.
I can’t wait for you to get to incarceration rates. The US should rank as the least free in that regard.
15 Feb, 2015 at 2:35 pm
Unfortunately on incarceration rates, NZ is up there with the US. It’s an blot on our otherwise good standings.
15 Feb, 2015 at 3:12 pm
The link that Doobster provided above, does indicate that there are greater legal restrictions on what can be published in the US compared to NZ. Also political pressure seems to have a greater influence on what is published in the US.
15 Feb, 2015 at 4:46 pm
Interesting topic Barry. I don’t know about freedom of press, but the CIA World Fact book website has huge amounts of material comparing countries on everything from infrastructure to crime to corruption. I don’t know how real their US numbers would be as they are hardly disinterested.
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13 Mar, 2015 at 12:05 am
Good post. I’m an American living in Cornwall. My sense of Americans who claim the US is the freest country in the world is it’s the kind of thing they don’t have to think about because they’ve grown up with it. They breathe it in, then they breathe it out, and it seems true because it’s always been there. And it’s often made with no real sense of what life in any other country is like. Generalizations, I admit, but I think there’s some truth in them.
13 Mar, 2015 at 12:18 am
I was last in America in 1999 and I was astounded by how little many Americans knew about the world outside their borders. I was also surprised at how few had ever visited another country. I hope the situation has improved since then.