In a year of unprecedented upheaval, the latest press freedom rankings show that many nations still have a long way to go to provide a space for healthy and open communication. The recently released report from the French journalism watchdog group Reporters Without Borders showed that many countries — many in the Arab world — dropped in their press freedom index.
The organisation creates the index by surveying journalists and other communication professionals in each country to judge the level of press freedom and freedom of expression. They measure incidents of self-censorship, financial pressures that limit robust journalism, and the ability of the news media to investigate and criticise. The surveys also keep track of penalties for press offences, media regulations, levels of government ownership, and inhibitions of the free flow of information on the internet.
The results are quantified and compiled into a ranking. As usual, Norway, Finland and The Netherlands — with their strong record of protecting media and personal freedoms — sit at the top of the list. But this year two African countries — Namibia and Cape Verde — joined the Top 20 after no attempts to obstruct the news media were recorded in 2011. Those new arrivals now sit firmly ahead of the reputed bastion of free expression, the US, which saw its rankings drop dramatically. The US dropped from No. 20 to No. 47 following multiple reports of arrests of journalists covering the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Nations in the Arab world — shaken by a year of unprecedented upheaval — largely saw their rankings decline. Syria, Bahrain and Yemen received their worst rankings ever as journalists were routinely harassed and — in some cases — beaten or killed for their reporting. Despite president Hosni Mubarak's ouster, the press ranking in Egypt fell 39 places as the military rulers continued to crack down on journalists and bloggers in that country. The one bright spot is Tunisia. Their ranking soared 30 places amid indications that the new government cautiously appears willing to allow for a free and independent press.
The UAE saw its press freedom rankings drop from 87 to 112. In its report, Reporters Without Borders blamed the decline on the government's internet filtering policy which resulted in the blocking last year of a discussion forum website, Al Hewar. Postings on the site led to the arrest and conviction of Ahmad Mansour, the site's administrator, last year on charges of insulting the UAE's leaders. He and his co-defendants received presidential pardons for these crimes.
Although not specifically mentioned in this year's report, the UAE also suffers from the level of self-censorship practised in its media outlets. The large number of government-owned news outlets also contributes to a lower ranking.
The press freedom rankings can appear arbitrary to some observers. For instance, critics in the US questioned how the arrest and immediate release of about 25 journalists covering Occupy Wall Street protests could lead to a decline of 27 spaces.
As one critic asked, "What is that, one spot for each arrest?" He found it odd that the United States (No. 47) would rank lower than Hungary (No. 40), which adopted "a law giving the ruling party direct control over the media and amending its constitution in December."
Observers could also argue that the UAE ranking isn't comprehensive either. After all, the press did cover the trial of Ahmad Mansour and the other members of the "UAE5." And news outlets here do practice good journalism, occasionally spotlighting problems with various agencies, businesses or policies.
Still, we should listen and try to learn from these rankings. Authorities in the US should ensure that all police understand the difference between a protester and a journalist. The freedom to report a news event should never be impeded by an overzealous police officer. In the UAE, media laws could be re-drafted to expressly support freedom of expression and to protect the role of journalists. Defamation laws could also be revised to decriminalise libel charges and allow civil courts to hear those cases. And the government could avoid blocking sites that allow for discussion and debate to flourish. Most importantly, Emiratis should be encouraged to pursue careers in journalism. Some types of news stories will only be covered comprehensively when an Emirati is doing the reporting.
One overriding message from the Arab Spring is that technology has provided a powerful tool for the free flow of information. Old approaches towards regulation and control are still effective, but Facebook, Twitter and YouTube increasingly allow for messages to circumvent restrictions. Indeed, some of the conversations once reserved for the blocked Al Hewar website are now taking place in plain view amid the UAE's vibrant Twitter community. Aided by new technology, the trend towards more communication and less ability to control appears to be inevitable. But, how governments choose to respond to this new reality is still up for debate. Perhaps next year's press freedom rankings will help us answer the question.
Dr Matt J. Duffy teaches journalism at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/mattjduffy