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Press Freedom and Bridges to Bucharest

In an important column in the Star Tribune last Saturday (April 28), John Rash wrote that according to the “2018 World Press Index,” the United States ranked 45th out of 180 nations regarding press freedom.  (“Press Freedom – and Democracy – Imperiled Worldwide,” April 27).  As a former reporter and editorial writer, I found this middling-to-lousy American ranking hard to believe so I Googled to learn what 44 countries beat us out.  A fascinating roster it is.

First was Norway, which seems to come in first in all the “best of the bests” lists these days.  This was certainly plausible, especially since I’ve aspired to be Norwegian ever since working for Al Quie when he was governor almost 40 years ago.  Way to go Oslo.

Norway was followed immediately by Sweden, Netherlands, Finland, and Switzerland.  They certainly all sounded reasonable.  Congratulations to them, as well.

But then I read further down the list and learned that supposedly doing better than the United States when it comes to freedom of the press were Namibia at 26; South Africa at 28; Cabo Verde at 29 (I forgot where it was, too); Burkina Faso at 41; and Romania right ahead of us at 44.  I have no interest in glibly besmirching any of these nations, though I do question the criteria used by Reporters Without Borders, the group that sponsors the annual competition.  And my argument certainly isn’t with Rash, who’s an excellent editorial writer and had nothing to do with the study’s methodology.

As for that method, it includes a questionnaire filled out by experts around the world in which criteria are “pluralism, media independence, media environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency, and the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information.”  These findings are combined with “quantitative data on abuses and acts of violence against journalists during the period evaluated.”

Sounds rigorous.  But my measures of press freedom are a lot simpler.

Regardless of whatever I wrote, was I ever afraid during my time as a reporter and editorial writer that the government and/or anyone else was gearing up to confiscate my typewriter and/or computer, or whack me across the head with an indictment, or throw me in jail without one?  No, I was never afraid of any of those things.  Same with writing, for 28 years now, under the auspices of a contrarian conservative think tank that has been known to irritate powerful people here and there.  Never once has anyone ever tried to serve me papers for regressively disturbing the peace of progressives.

Similar question regarding local or national journalists.  Do I believe any of them have any legitimate reason to be nervous or afraid that any level of government or anyone else is primed to stifle, squash, or pack them away, not to mention knee-cap?  No, I don’t.  Do I believe such confidence is as justified in all 44 nations rated higher than the United States in press freedom?  No, I don’t again.  Still, if anyone thinks I’m naively missing some boat, do I have a great deal for you on a bridge to Bucharest.

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