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Governments paranoid over free media

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Special To The Japan Times

Governments throughout the world seem increasingly nervous if not paranoid over a free press and media, according to a searing and poignant survey by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The annual survey of the global media in 180 countries, the French-based monitor report underscores a gradual deterioration in freedoms and the rights of journalists to freely pursue and present reports.

“It is unfortunately clear that many of the world’s leaders are developing a form of paranoia about legitimate journalism,” states Christophe Deloire, RSF’s secretary-general. He adds that “the climate of fear results in a growing aversion to debate and pluralism, a clampdown on the media by ever more authoritarian and oppressive governments.” All this points to what the watchdog group calls a “deep and disturbing decline in media freedoms.”

Days after this statement, the Islamic Republic of Iran sentenced four reformist journalists to prison on the charges of “acting against national security.” Though the Tehran regime’s actions are hardly surprising, the RSF report overviews the wider deterioration of press freedoms and accessibly in the United States and Europe as well.

First, let’s analyze the survey, compiled by a rigorous methodology and analysis. The top 10 countries with the freest media include Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark and New Zealand. Not surprising. The second five include Costa Rica, Switzerland, Sweden, Ireland and Jamaica. Again impressive, but where’s the U.S.?

Let’s look at the next 10 countries. Austria, Slovakia, Belgium, Germany and Canada are among them. There’s good news here: Estonia has the best ratings of any country in the post-Soviet Union while Slovakia has the best numbers of any country in former Eastern Europe.

Yet again, where’s the U.S.?

It is ranked 41st in press freedoms. That’s behind South Africa and Slovenia and just ahead of Burkina Faso and Botswana. Despite America’s long cherished First Amendment, which constitutionally provides for extensive media rights, there’s been a steady erosion of journalistic freedoms in recent years. In 2015 the U.S. ranked 49th. But why?

The reasons are manifest in the administration’s stringent use of security legislation. According to the report, “The main cause for concern for RSF continues to be the current administration’s obsessive control of information, which manifests itself through the war on whistleblowers and journalists’ sources, as well as the lack of government transparency, which reporters have continually criticized.”

The RSF survey adds poignantly, “The Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined.”

But it’s not just the U.S. slipping in press freedoms. Japan, which has proudly sustained a free press in the postwar era, has now slipped 11 places to No. 72, just behind South Korea. Japan’s press restrictions concerning “state secrets” remain onerous.

During a recent visit to Tokyo, U.N. Special Rapporteur David Kaye called on the government to safeguard media independence, which he stressed was facing “serious threats.” Kaye’s criticism stems from legislation that expands wider protections to what are deemed state secrets.

Taiwan still maintains the highest free press standing in East Asia: It comes in at 51st, compared with Hong Kong at No. 69 and the Philippines at No. 138. China’s media freedoms are near the end of the list, scoring No. 176, just behind Vietnam and one step ahead of Syria.

As in past years, we see a steady and sustained assault on free media — print, radio/television, Internet and blogs — from a wide swath of regimes, many of whom are under the political radar.

Of the usual suspects, Venezuela stands at 139th, Russia at 148th and Iran at 169th, but then there are places like Azerbaijan at 163th or Sudan at 174th, or even Mexico, where drug cartel violence, killings of journalists and widespread corruption impact on a media that ranks 149th globally.

As is now almost a tradition, North Korea and Eritrea are at the bottom of the list rounding out the most repressive states for media freedoms. Surprised?

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of “Divided Dynamism: The Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China.”