Declining U.S. Rankings in Important International Socio-Political Indices

There are many international rankings of socio-political characteristics of the countries of the world. Here are at least six in which the U.S. ranking is declining.[1]

Freedom of the Press Index. The U.S. ranking has declined from 41 in 2016 to 48 in 2019in this index by Reporters Without Borders. Despite the importance of freedom of press in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. this year is behind all of Europe, Australia, Canada and New Zealand as well as far below Papua New Guinea and right below Romania.

This Index is “determined by pooling the responses of experts to a questionnaire devised by RSF [Reporters Sans Borders]. This qualitative analysis is combined with quantitative data on abuses and acts of violence against journalists during the period evaluated. The criteria evaluated in the questionnaire are pluralism, media independence, media environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency, and the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information.”

Human Development Index. This index from the U.N. measures life expectancy, education and per capita income. For the most recent year (2018), the U.S. is 13th behind most of our European friends, Australia and Canada.

Level of Corruption Index. Compiled by Transparency International, this Index for 2018 (the most recent year) has the U.S. as 22nd in 2018 with a score of 71/100 versus 18th in 2016. The U.S. is far below Denmark, Sweden, Australia and Canada as well as below Estonia and just a little less corrupt than the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

The U.S. along with Brazil and the Czech Republic was listed as a “country to watch” in 2019. According to Transparency International, “With a score of 71, the United States lost four points since last year, dropping out of the top 20 countries on the CPI for the first time since 2011. The low score comes at a time when the US is experiencing threats to its system of checks and balances as well as an erosion of ethical norms at the highest levels of power.”

Income Inequality Index.  The Gini Coefficient measures perfect equality as 0 and perfect inequality as 1. In the mid-1970s the U.S. had a coefficient of 0.406 and in the mid-2000s as 0.486. Other reports of this Index by the CIA had the U.S. at 39th with a score of 0.450 (2017) while the World Bank said 59th with 0.410 (2013).

Global Peace Index. This Index is produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) as the world’s leading measure of global peacefulness. This report presents the most comprehensive data-driven analysis to date on peace, its economic value, trends, and how to develop peaceful societies.” From a ranking of 124th in 2018, the U.S. has declined to 128th out of 163 in 2019.

Social Progress Index. This ranks countries by their average score for scores for three broad dimensions: Basic Human Needs, Foundations of Wellbeing, and Opportunity. For 2019 the U.S. had a score of 84.78 for a ranking of 25 out of 146 countries after declining since 2014. All of the G7 countries are ahead of the U.S. in health and education.

Conclusion

These indices are examples of contemporary efforts to reduce complex socio-political phenomena to digital numbers and thereby enable the construction of tables and rankings. Theoretically one could make a detailed analysis of the assumptions and sources of the data used to make these tables and rankings in order to make an informed conclusion about the validity of the indices. But the overall conclusion of these indices that the U.S. is not Number One would be shocking to many Americans.

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[1] Kennedy, The U.S. Is Falling, World View (Summer 2019) ;Reporters without Borders, World Press Freedom 2019; UN Development Programme, Human Development Indices and Indicators (2018) Transparency International, Corruption Perceptions Index 2018 ;World Bank, GINI Index (World Bank Estimate)–Country Rankings; CIA, Distribution of Family Income—GINI Index ;Institute for Economic and Peace, Peace Index 2019; Social Progress Imperative, Social Progress Index (2018); Kristof, Keynote Address, American Oxonian (Winter/Spring 2018).

 

Press Freedom Problems in Cuba and the United States    

On April 25 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released its annual report with its rankings of press freedom in 180 countries of the world. Overall it said there was “growing animosity towards journalists. Hostility towards the media, openly encouraged by political leaders, and the efforts of authoritarian regimes to export their vision of journalism pose a threat to democracies.”[1]

Based in Paris, RSF “is an independent NGO with consultative status with the United Nations, UNESCO, the Council of Europe and the International Organization of the Francophonie (OIF). Its foreign sections along with its bureaux in ten cities (including Brussels, Washington, Berlin, Tunis, Rio de Janeiro, and Stockholm) and its network of correspondents in 130 countries give RSF the ability to mobilize support, challenge governments and wield influence both on the ground and in the ministries and precincts where media and Internet standards and legislation are drafted.”

Here are the new report’s sections on Cuba and the United States.

Cuban Press Freedom

Cuba has a ranking of 172 up one from its ranking last year. The headline for the RSF report was “Continuing ordeal for independent media.”

“A self-styled socialist republic with a single party, Cuba continues to be Latin America’s worst media freedom violator year after year. Fidel Castro’s death in 2016 has changed nothing. The Castro family, which has ruled since 1959, maintains an almost total media monopoly and the constitution prohibits privately-owned media. Arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, threats, smear campaigns, confiscation of equipment and closure of websites are the most common forms of harassment, which is constant and is buttressed by an arsenal of restrictive laws. A gradual improvement in Internet access has made it possible for independent bloggers and journalists to get their voices heard, but many are still forced to leave the island.”

The report also contains links to separate reports on Cuba by RSF during the year.

U.S. Press Freedom

Under the headline, “Trump exacerbates press freedom’s steady decline,” the report drops the U.S. from No. 43 to No. 45 because “US press freedom, enshrined in the First Amendment to the 1787 constitution, has been under increasing attack over the past few years, and the first year of President 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 “’ake news’ in retaliation for critical reporting. He has even called for revoking certain media outlets’ broadcasting licenses.”

In addition, the report says the “violent anti-press rhetoric from the highest level of the US 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.”

“ It appears the Trump effect has only amplified the disappointing press freedom climate that predated his presidency. 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. Journalists and their devices continue to be searched at the US border, while some foreign journalists are still denied entry into the US after covering sensitive topics like Colombia’s FARC or Kurdistan.”

The report also contains links to separate reports on U.S. press freedom during the year.

White House Response

The White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, on April 25 rejected this assessment by saying, ““I certainly would reject the idea that the president or this administration has halted freedom of the press. I think we’re one of the most accessible administrations that we’ve seen in decades. I think by my mere presence of standing up here and taking your questions, unvetted, is a pretty good example of freedom of the press and I think it’s ridiculous to suggest otherwise.”[2]

When then asked if she was claiming the White House was a champion of press freedoms, she responded as follows:

  • “We support a free press, but we also support a fair press, and I think that those things should go hand in hand. And there’s a certain responsibility by the press to report accurate information. I think a number of people in this room do that every single day, they do their very best to provide fair and accurate information. Certainly support that and that’s one of the reason I’m standing here taking your questions. And a lot of times taking your questions in a tone that’s completely unnecessary, unneeded and frankly doesn’t help further the conversation or help the American people get any more information in a better way, which is your job and my job, and that’s what I’m trying to do.” (Emphasis to the conjunction “but” added by Washington Post journalist on the ground that it has no place in an affirmation of free press.)

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[1] Reporters Without Borders, RSF Index 2018: Hatred of journalism threatens democracies (April 25, 2018); Assoc. Press, Hostility Toward Journalists Rising Worldwide, Watchdog Says, N.Y. Times (April 25, 2018); Reporters Without Borders keeps Cuba in the worst Latin American position in terms of press freedom, Diario de Cuba (April 25, 2018).

[2] Wemple, Sarah Huckabee Sanders: ‘We support a free press, but …,” Wash. Post (April 25, 2018).

 

 

Ecuador Continues To Restrict Freedom of the Press

On June 14, 2013, Ecuador’s national legislature adopted the Organic Law on Communications with the following provisions that threaten freedom of the press:

  • Prohibition of “media lynching,” which is defined as “a concerted effort, coordinated by several media or carried out by just one, to destroy a person’s honor or prestige.”
  • Establishment of “everyone’s right that information of public interest received through the media should be verified, balanced, contextualized and opportune” without defining those terms.
  • Establishment of media’s responsibility to accept and promote obedience to the Constitution, the laws and the legitimate decisions of public authorities.
  • Creation of the office of Superintendent of Information and Communication with the power to regulate the news media, investigate possible violations and impose potentially large fines.
  • Creation of the Council for Media Regulation and Development headed by a representative of the President with the power to exact a public apology (and impose fines for repeat offenses) when media fail to accord someone the right to a correction or the right of reply.
  • Retention of the system of “cadenas,” or official messages which all over-the-air TV and radio stations have to broadcast that the President and the National Assembly speaker may use whenever they think it necessary and that other public office holders may use for five minutes per week.

Another provision on the surface may appear to be non-controversial: a requirement for allocation of broadcast frequencies (state, 34%; private, 33%; and community, 33%). Currently an estimated 60% are privately owned. Therefore, this requirement is seen as a means of the government’s closing privately owned media, presumably those critical of the government.

Other provisions of the new law are more benign. It prohibits any form of censorship by government officials or civil servants, guarantees the right of journalists to protect their sources and to maintain professional confidentiality.[1]

Ecuadorian legislators opposing the Communications Law
Ecuadorian legislators opposing the Communications Law

This new law was strenuously challenged by the Ecuadorian legislators opposing the law, who said it will allow the government to control media through loosely defined regulations. (To the right is a photo of the objecting legislators with signs and masks over their mouths.)

Over 50 Colombian newspapers published a joint editorial condemning the law. Some Ecuadorian newspapers     (Hoy and El Commercio) had similar criticisms. Human Rights Watch said the law “is yet another effort by President Correa to go after the independent media. The provisions for censorship and criminal prosecutions of journalists are clear attempts to silence criticism.” The law also was criticized by the Inter-American Press Association, Reporters Without Borders and the Committee To Protect Journalists.

The law was defended by its author who is a member of President Correa’s political party and who said it will “protect freedom of speech with a focus on everybody’s rights, not just for a group of privileged.” Another member of that party who is the president of the legislature predicted that the law would promote more balanced news coverage.

In his TV and radio speech to the country on June 15th President Correa said that law was a precedent that other Latin American countries would follow. Critics of the law, he said, were members of the “gallada” or club that opposes any regulation of the media.

This is not the first effort by Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to restrict the media. Such prior attempts have been protested by the previously mentioned NGO’s, the U.S. Department of State in its annual human rights reports and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The Commission’s criticisms have caused Ecuador to launch a full-scale attack on the Commission that was not successful this last past March, but that Ecuador promises to keep pursuing.


[1] This summary of the new law is based upon articles in an Ecuadorian newspaper (Hoy), the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and a commentary by Reporters Without Borders. As always, I invite others to provide comments to correct any errors of mine and to express other opinions about the new law.