Founded in 1985, Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), also known as Reporters Without Borders, professes to be motivated by a profound devotion to freedom of expression. The organization has apparently done good work on behalf of journalists in countries like Cuba and China, where press freedom simply doesn't exist. But RSF also issues an annual Press Freedom Index – the latest was released just the other day – in which it purports to rank countries according to the degree of freedom their journalists enjoy. Let's just say that the list doesn't represent RSF at its finest.
As someone who frequently slams the New York Times, I'm glad to be able to say that Times reporter Andrew Rosenthal, writing about RSF's new list last week, summoned precisely the right word to describe it: “ridiculous.” As Rosenthal put it: “Like US News & World Report with colleges, they freshen the list each year based on new developments, and – again like US News – they sometimes end up with a pecking-order that doesn’t quite mesh with reality.”
For example, on the new list, the United States comes in at #47, falling from #20 last year, purportedly because police officers have beaten and arrested journalists reporting on the Occupy Wall Street movement. One suspects that at least some of those whom RSF counts as mistreated journalists are bloggers who were taking active, and violent, part in them. Be that as it may, it turns out that Hungary was given a better ranking this year than the U.S., even though its news media are under government control. Rosenthal issues a challenge to RSF: “Can you find me a journalist who thinks he’d have a freer hand in Hungary than in the United States? I don’t think so.”
But it's not just Hungary's position relative to the U.S. that is ludicrous. To judge by RSF's rankings, you'd think some of the most troubling recent assaults by Western governments on the freedom of expression never took place at all.
Take one of two countries tied for tenth place – Canada, where a few years back both Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant were hauled before Human Rights Commissions for writing critically about Islam. Although the Ontario Human Rights Commission declared that the offending article by Steyn – which had appeared in the new magazine Macleans – was beyond its jurisdiction, it condemned the article anyway, rendering, in effect, a guilty verdict without a trial on a matter that it acknowledged was none of its business.
Steyn's article appeared in 2006, and his cases before the Ontario and Canadian Human Rights Commissions were wound up in 2008; so were two cases against Levant before the Alberta Human Rights Commission. But there's no indication that anything has changed in Canada to render critics of Islam less vulnerable to government harassment in 2011 than Steyn and Levant were in 2008. In any event, it's worth noting that Canada's Press Freedom ranking in 2008 was #13, while the U.S. was tied with several other countries for 36th place.
Tied with Canada at #10 this year is Denmark, where author and journalist Lars Hedegaard has been put on trial for criticizing Islam in a conversation held in his own home. Hedegaard – who is the founder and director of Denmark's Free Press Society as well as of the International Free Press Society – was found not guilty of racism in 2011, but the case was retried, and later in the year he was found guilty and fined 5,000 kroner ($884). It was an outrageous travesty of Western justice and a chilling betrayal of the freedom of expression for which Hedegaard's own organization stands – and which the RSF, too, purportedly exists to defend. But does RSF even know about the case? From 2010 to 2011, Denmark actually went up a slot on its Press Freedom list, from #11 to #10.
At #5 on RSF's new list is Austria. Elizabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, anyone? In February 2011, an Austrian court convicted her of “denigration of religious beliefs of a legally recognized religion” – guess which one? – and fined her up to €480; in December, Austria's Supreme Court affirmed the verdict. Despite this scandalous precedent, Austria's new RSF ranking, too, represents a step up from 2010, when it was at #7.
Tying for the #3 spot on RSF's list is the Netherlands. Yep – the country in which Geert Wilders, a member of Parliament, head of a major political party, and probably the most popular living Dutch politician, has been harassed by the courts for years on account of his views of Islam. In January 2009, he was ordered to stand trial for expressing those views; in June 2011, he was finally acquitted. This outcome was certainly better than a conviction, but for Wilders to be put through more than two years of torment at the hands of his nation's judiciary is unconscionable. In 2008, the year before Wilders's tribulations began, the Netherlands was tied at #16 on RSF's list; in 2009, the year he went to trial, it jumped to #7; in 2010, while Wilders was sweating it out in a courtroom, the Netherlands tied for #1. Atrocious.
The RSF might object that Wilders isn't a journalist, and that its list is about press freedom. In fact Wilders was tried for statements made in his documentary film Fitna, which could well be viewed as advocacy journalism. But OK, let's look at the Dutch press. What does it say about the Dutch press that while at least half of his countrymen are in Wilders's corner, pro-Wilders voices are few and far between in the Dutch newspapers, and Dutch journalists who should have been deeply anguished about the threat to free speech represented by Wilders's trial denigrated him gleefully throughout his courtroom ordeal? The simple fact is that the Dutch punditocracy effectively bars from its ranks people who'd be likely to support Wilders. Exactly what kind of press freedom is that?
All of which brings us to the #2 spot on the RSF list, and to Norway – where freedom of speech has been under serious threat for years now. In 2006, when a small Christian newspaper, Magazinet, reprinted the Danish Muhammed cartoons, Norwegian government officials at the very highest levels, in concert with the mainstream Norwegian media, exerted intense pressure on Magazinet's editor to apologize – which he finally did. (In that year, Norway tied for #6 on RSF's list.)
In 2011, free speech in Norway took an even bigger hit. In the wake of the July 22 atrocities, committed by a madman who distributed a 1500-page manifesto criticizing Islam and the left, the country's mainstream media, and a raft of high-profile authors, professors, and politicians, targeted critics of Islam – whom they represented as the murderer's heroes, and thus, in effect, his accomplices – with a ruthless, full-scale campaign of misrepresentation and demonization. Champions of free speech in Norway have been profoundly alarmed by these developments (which are the subject of my just-published e-book The New Quislings). Yet, inexplicably, the RSF has put Norway at #2 on its list.
It's hard not to get the impression that Reporters Sans Frontières grades threats to freedom of expression based on what, exactly, the threatened authors and journalists in question have done to give rise to the threats. If cops arrest them for blurring the line between observers of and participants in violent left-wing protests, apparently the RSF sees that as a damning blow to press freedom; if the courts try them, or their fellow journalists attempt to silence them, for criticizing Islam – well, one can only conclude that the RSF, like many others, sees that as a benign effort to protect Muslims' “right” not to have their religion criticized.
Whatever the case, one thing's clear: while RSF may well deserve plenty of credit for some of its efforts, the Press Freedom Index is a joke – and, more than that, a slap in the face to all the writers and journalists who have been persecuted in recent years for criticizing Islam. These are precisely the kind of people who should expect the support of an organization like RSF. Instead they don't even appear to be on its radar.
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