One dictator's journalist is another's evangelist (think about it)

freedom_houseWhile this may seem out of place on a God-beat blog, let me call attention to a new study released by the human-rights think tank Freedom House. It’s called “Freedom of the Press 2004: A Global Survey of Media Independence” and was released to mark the upcoming World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

I bring this up for the following rather obvious reason — free speech is free speech and one dictator’s journalist is often another’s evangelist. And vice versa.

Freedom of the press and freedom of religion are wedded at the hip. It’s hard to silence the evangelists without silencing other people who want to offer provocative commentary on how people are supposed to live their lives. Think about it. A summary of the findings included this money paragraph:

Of the 193 countries surveyed (including the Israeli-Administered Territories/Palestinian Authority), 73 (38%, representing 17% of the global population) were rated Free, with no significant restrictions on the news media; 49 (25%, 40%) were rated Partly Free and are characterized by some media restrictions; and 71 (37%, 43%) were rated Not Free, with state control or other obstacles to a free press.

Some of the most serious setbacks for press freedoms took place in “countries where democracy is backsliding, such as in Bolivia and Russia, and in older, established democracies, most notably Italy.” And few were surprised that the Middle East-North Africa region once again received the lowest marks — with 90 percent of the region’s countries getting a “Not Free” rating. Only one country — Israel — was rated “Free.”

Freedom House has a long history of old-fashioned liberalism (founded by Eleanor Roosevelt) on these issues and has been at the forefront of efforts to push the U.S. government to do more to protect the freedoms of religious minorities. This has led to some interesting political partnerships in the past decade or so. During Clinton-era debates over China trade policies, it was not unusual to see the likes of Gary Bauer embracing Richard Gere at a protest rally. (The map with this post covers basic political freedoms.)

It may help to keep that in mind when reading some of the more provocative findings in this study. Take, for example, the reference to the changing environment in Iraq:

With the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in April, hundreds of new publications are covering a wide range of opinions. Iraqis were able to gain unfettered access to the Internet and to uncensored foreign television broadcasts. Nevertheless, a continuing lack of security, the murders of at least 13 journalists, and an ambiguous legal and regulatory media framework kept Iraq in the ranks of the Not Free countries despite its impressive numerical gains, as noted in the survey’s rating system.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jeff Sharlet @ The Revealer

    Great post, Terry. Interesting developments domestically include the fact that some religious groups are turning to the free speech clause of the First Amendment rather than the freedom of religion clause to pursue legal rights. Free speech is the root. I just wrote an op-ed for a paper (we’ll see if it gets published) that what makes America rather exceptional is its fundamentalism. Yes, the f-word — my thesis is that we are a nation of gentle fanatics, attached irrevocably to the idea of free speech. My evidence is that in any number of conversations with real fundamentalists, of all faiths, this right is respected and viewed as foundational to the practice of faith in America. Of course, there are plenty who despise free speech, but I think they tend to be more in the leadership ranks — plenty of Catholics didn’t like the dung-covered Mary at the Brooklyn Museum, for instance, but it took Rudy Giuliani and William Donohue, seeking an “issue,” to whip them up into censorious fury. Likewise Janet Jackson’s breast — plenty of Christians disapprove, but they’d rather get busy with their own free speech of the Gospel than muckity-mucking with the congressmen who’re looking for political advantage via censorshop.

    The Iraq case is illustrative — it was the closing of a newspaper that many Iraqis considered unforgivable, crossing the line, and an incitement to a much less gentle fanaticism.

  • tmatt

    Thanks, Jeff:

    This is one of those points that must made over and over. True tolerance is the ability to live gracefully with those with whom one sincerely and strongly disagrees.

    The ability to have a forum for speech that truly makes us uncomfortable is a sign of true tolerance. Telling your neighbor to shut up is one thing. Asking the police (campus or otherwise) to make them shut up is something else….

  • Hunk Hondo

    All you need to know about the people who made this map is that Canada is still listed as “free.”

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