Editorial: A foreboding decline in the United States' press freedom ranking

 
Updated 4/20/2019 4:36 PM
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  • A 2018 candlelight vigil in Managua, Nicaragua, honors a slain journalist. The 2019 World Press Freedom Index shows that Nicaragua fell 24 places from the previous year's list to 114th. The U.S. fell three places to 48th.

    A 2018 candlelight vigil in Managua, Nicaragua, honors a slain journalist. The 2019 World Press Freedom Index shows that Nicaragua fell 24 places from the previous year's list to 114th. The U.S. fell three places to 48th. Associated Press File Photo

We tend to take for granted that the press in the United States is free.

Truth be told, press freedoms here are increasingly under assault. Truth be told, press freedom in America ranks below that of almost every other country in the West.

Reporters Without Borders, an international organization that promotes freedom of expression around the globe, released its 2019 World Press Freedom Index Thursday, and the results are troubling worldwide, disturbing in the U.S.

Worldwide, "hatred of journalists has degenerated into violence, contributing to an increase in fear," the organization said in a summary of the report. "The number of countries regarded as safe, where journalists can work in complete security, continues to decline while authoritarian regimes continue to tighten their grip on the media."

You might find it surprising that the U.S. doesn't rank at the top of the Index or anywhere near it. The 1 through 5 rankings go to Norway, Finland, Sweden, Netherlands and Denmark, countries with traditions of complete and open access.

The United States ranks 48 this year, down three spots from a year ago. That puts us in a media climate category Reporters Without Borders describes as "problematic."

We enjoy some public access to information and to government meetings but that comes with notable restrictions. Attempts to intimidate the press are not uncommon.

Reporters Without Borders noted that "Donald J. Trump's presidency has fostered further decline in journalists' right to report. He has declared the press an 'enemy of the American people' in a series of verbal attacks toward journalists, attempted to block White House access to multiple media outlets and routinely uses the term 'fake news' in retaliation for critical reporting.

"He has even called for revoking certain media outlets' broadcasting licenses. The violent anti-press rhetoric from the highest level of the U.S. government has been coupled with an increase in the number of press freedom violations at the local level as journalists run the risk of arrest for covering protests or simply attempting to ask public officials questions.

"Reporters have even been subject to physical assault while on the job ... Whistleblowers face prosecution under the Espionage Act if they leak information of public interest to the press, while there is still no federal 'shield law' guaranteeing reporters' right to protect their sources."

Reporters Without Borders is admittedly doctrinaire in its defense of freedom of expression, but the organization's underlying mission is vital for all of us. As citizens of the republic, we all have a vested interest in defending the First Amendment, in appreciating that public access and freedom of expression are safeguards that are essential in protecting all of our other freedoms.

The news media is under an assault that is dangerous to our liberty.

Defend it. Facts matter.

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