Map of the Day: Where the Press is Not Free

Today’s map, in honor of the UN’s World Press Freedom Day, comes from Reporters Without Borders, which documents crimes committed against journalists and advocates for free press worldwide.

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As you can see from the map, press freedom is wildly inconsistent across the globe. There are countries with terrible records: Eritrea, China, Somalia, and Sudan among others. And some countries, mostly in Scandinavia that are beacons of independent, free media. (The USA falls somewhere in between, despite the first amendment of the constitutions with guarantees freedom of expression.  Reporters Without Borders cites “the government’s war on whistleblowers who leak information about its surveillance activities, spying and foreign operations, especially those linked to counter-terrorism,” as reasons for the USA less than stellar ranking).

Global press freedom is an international problem, but not one that you might think the United Nations is capable of helping to solve for the fact that an adversarial press corps is often critical of the very governments that make up the membership of the United Nations. Yet, the UN — particularly UNESCO —  has had an important role to play in promoting norms about a free and independent press.

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of a major UNESCO conference of African journalists in Namibia in 1991, which resulted in the “Windhoek Declaration.” The declaration was a formal affirmation of principles of freedom of expression in a continent that was undergoing a rapid (and sometimes messy) process of democratization.

Here’s an excerpt.

Consistent with article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy in a nation, and for economic development.

By an independent press, we mean a press independent from governmental, political or economic control or from control of materials and infrastructure essential for the production and dissemination of newspapers, magazines and periodicals.

By a pluralistic press, we mean the end of monopolies of any kind and the existence of the greatest possible number of newspapers, magazines and periodicals reflecting the widest possible range of opinion within the community.

The welcome changes that an increasing number of African States are now undergoing towards multi­party democracies provide the climate in which an independent and pluralistic press can emerge.

The world­wide trend towards democracy and freedom of information and expression is a fundamental contribution to the fulfilment of human aspirations.

In Africa today, despite the positive developments in some countries, in many countries journalists, editors and publishers are victims of repression-they are murdered, arrested, detained and censored, and are restricted by economic and political pressures such as restrictions on newsprint, licensing systems which restrict the opportunity to publish, visa restrictions which prevent the free movement of journalists, restrictions on the exchange of news and information, and limitations on the circulation of newspapers within countries and across national borders. In some countries, one­ party States control the totality of information.

The declaration was later adopted by all UNESCO member states, which nearly includes every country on the planet. So, at least on paper, governments around the world committed to a free press.

In practice, progress, particularly in Africa, has been uneven.

RSF’s index only goes back to 2002. But Freedom House has been collecting data on press freedom since 1995. The trend is overall mostly positive, but with wide disparities between regions of Africa.

Press freedom in Africa in 1995

Press freedom in Africa in 1995

Freedom of the press in Africa in 2015

Freedom of the press in Africa in 2015

UNESCO continues to be the agency in the UN system specifically dedicated to advancing press freedom. It does so in a variety of ways, including media training, maintaining a list of journalists killed in the line of duty, and helping to set norms around the freedom of expression on the internet. Meanwhile, other parts of the UN system, like the UN Human Rights Council have a dedicated Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Expression. The position is currently filled by an American legal scholar David Kaye, who recently made news for criticizing the FBI’s attempt to coerce Apple into undermining its encryption of iPhones.

Taken together, UN system has been able to integrate norms associated with the freedom of the press into the larger body of international human rights norms and laws. To be sure, there are many countries that show no respect for press freedoms, and some countries that pay only lip service to a free press, but the fact is, press freedom is now a yardstick against which to judge governments’s commitment to pluralistic, democratic values.  That’s in part because of organizations like Reporters Without Borders,, Freedom House and UN bodies like UNESCO.

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