While 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.