Each year, the World Press Freedom Index ranks the world’s nations – 179 of them – on how easy they make the work of journalists, scoring them in categories like media independence, the physical safety of reporters, free speech laws, and transparency. The resulting list reads much like a primer for understanding global conflict: Safe and prosperous countries like Finland and Norway do best, while war-torn dictatorships like Iran, Eritrea, and Syria are among the world’s worst spots to be not only a citizen, but a journalist as well.
But while the index suggests that press freedom is frequently a casualty of war – take for instance Mali, which plummeted 74 spots on the list during the past year – it also indicates that those wounds are not always fatal. This year saw massive growth in press freedom in several countries with bloody recent histories, including Ivory Coast, Afghanistan, and Myanmar. These countries can serve as a bellwether for Middle Eastern and North African states struggling to remake themselves in the wake of the 2011 uprisings in that region, says Delphine Halgand, Washington director for the French NGO Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières, or RSF), which released the index for 2012 today.
“In these Arab Spring countries we’re still waiting on the promise of new freedoms,” Ms. Halgand says. “This is a really sensitive time for the future of the press there.”
Elsewhere in the world, however, shifts in journalistic freedom have happened more quietly. Malawi, for instance, marched upward 71 places in a single year on the back of government reform there, while Japan dipped 31 spots based on the government’s handling of press coverage of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor disaster.
Here are five of the notable winners and losers on this year’s list.
After tumbling 27 places in the rankings between 2011 and 2012, the United States recovered significant ground this year, rising 15 slots to 32nd. Last year’s downgrade was the result of police crackdown on reporters covering the Occupy Wall Street movement, which led to the imprisonment and beating of more than two dozen journalists, according to RSF. This was not the first time the American position in the ranking took a sudden nosedive – the US fell 20 places between 2004 and 2005 at the height of government-media tensions over the war on terror. “Even the US media climate reflects [political upheaval],” Halgand notes.
But just as the US began to right itself this year, Canada dropped 10 spots to 20th as a result of press difficulties in covering the widespread student protests there. But neither the US nor its northern neighbor came close to the press freedom enjoyed in the Western Hemisphere’s highest ranked nation, tiny Jamaica, which clocked in at 13th.
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