Press freedom has improved in the United States in the last year and the country jumped 20 places to No. 20 on a 2009 international ranking by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released yesterday.
The media watchdog said the assumption of the presidency by Barack Obama in January brought a new approach in Washington after eight years under President George W. Bush, while some European countries fell in the group’s Press Freedom Index.
It expressed concerns about US attitudes toward the media in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it said journalists had been injured or arrested by the US military.
“President Obama may have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but his country is still fighting two wars,” the group said. “Despite a slight improvement, the attitude of the United States towards the media in Iraq and Afghanistan is worrying.”
The US came in just behind Britain on the press freedom index of 175 countries, while China was at No. 168. Afghanistan No. 149 and Iraq at No. 145.
Reporters Without Borders noted that in the United States the House of Representatives this year backed legislation to allow journalists to protect their sources it has not yet been voted on in the Senate and the Obama administration had promised better access to public information.
The group said civil liberties were violated in the name of national security during the Bush era.
European countries hold the top 13 spots, led by Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Norway and Sweden. France fell eight spots to No. 43, Slovakia dropped 37 places to No. 44 and Italy fell five spots to No. 49.
“Europe should be setting an example as regards civil liberties. How can you condemn human rights violations abroad if you do not behave irreproachably at home?” said Reporters Without Borders Secretary-General Jean-Francois Julliard.
Press freedom in France has been worsening for several years, the group said, with the authorities placing growing pressure on journalists to reveal sources and proposing legislation that could reduce their freedom.
In Italy, Reporters Without Borders said press freedom was being stifled by threats from the mafia and various lawsuits being brought or considered by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi against news organizations.
The group also drew attention to Israel, which fell 47 places to No. 93, losing its place as the top country for press freedom in the region and falling behind Kuwait at No. 60, Lebanon at No. 61 and the United Arab Emirates at No. 86.
“Israel has begun to use the same methods internally as it does outside its own territory,” said Reporters Without Borders, adding that journalists had been arrested and imprisoned and that military censorship also posed a threat.
But as a result of actions during Israel’s war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip in December and January, Reporters Without Borders ranked the country at No. 150 for its “extraterritorial actions.”
“The toll of the war was very heavy. Around 20 journalists in the Gaza Strip were injured by the Israeli military forces and three were killed while covering the offensive,” it said.
At the bottom of the list were Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea “where media are so suppressed they are nonexistent,” said Reporters Without Borders.
Iran dropped to No. 172 from No. 166, with Reporters Without Borders saying the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had fostered a paranoia about journalists and bloggers.
“Automatic prior censorship, state surveillance of journalists, mistreatment, and journalists forced to flee the country, illegal arrests and imprisonment such is the state of press freedom this year in Iran,” the group said.
The ranking was compiled from hundreds of questionnaires completed by journalists and media experts around the world and reflecting press freedom violations that took place between Sept. 1, 2008 and Aug. 31, 2009. The exact number of questionnaires completed was not immediately available.
The complete ranking can be seen at www.rsf.org/en-classement1003-2009.html.