Freedom of the Press 2004: A Global Survey of Media Independence/Freedom of the Press: Rights and Liberties under the Law

Article excerpt

* Karlekar, Karen Deutsch, ed. (2004). Freedom of the Press 2004: A Global Survey of Media Independence. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefiel Publishers, Inc. pp. 197.

* Cornwell, Nancy C. (2004). Freedom of the Press: Rights and Liberties Under the Law. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, Inc. pp. 355.

Press freedom has been taking a beating lately. An unprecedented number of reporters face jail time or fines for refusing to identify confidential sources. Television decency advocates are trying to make it financially suicidal for a broadcaster to air any content that might offend anyone. Some members of Congress would like to extend indecency regulations to cable and satellite television, which may dramatically affect what some adults pay to see and hear (imagine "Heavy Petting and the City" on HBO). The surge in the use of blogs is giving rise to new debates about what the word "journalist" means in social and legal contexts. Meanwhile, opinion polls indicate that press freedom is not a popular concept with much of the public these days.

Both of these books help us put the current controversies over press freedom in perspective. Freedom of the Press 2004: A Global Survey of Media Independence is published under the auspices of Freedom House, an organization devoted to promoting and defending democracy worldwide. The book examines the status of press freedom in 192 countries and one territory. It reminds us that as bad as things sometimes look in the United States, there are many places where the press has bigger problems. Nancy Cornwell's book, part of the America's Freedoms series, provides a concise history of press freedom in the United States from the colonial period through today. It reminds us that American press freedom has always been under pressure, often with more devastating results than journalists face today.

Both books cover a lot of ground. The Freedom House global survey book is the latest annual entry in an effort to rate press freedom around the world. Freedom House avoids treating the United States as the model by which all other press systems should be judged, which is healthy. Its ratings of nations' regard for press freedom are based on reports from a variety of governmental, non-governmental, and media officials and organizations. The nations are rated in three categories: legal, political, and economic environment. The ratings for each category are added together and the press system in each nation is then designated as "Free," "Partly Free," or "Not Free" based on the sums. Not surprisingly, perhaps, most nations are "Not Free."

A quantitative scholar may be troubled by the book's first section, in which the editor tries to explain how the numbers were arrived at. It is not clear exactly who arrived at the ratings and how, or why the range of points possible is different for political environment than for legal or economic environment. Also, one could argue that being "Partly Free" is like being a little bit pregnant. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that some nations' press systems are in transition from more freedom to less or vice versa.

An obsession with the numbers is ill-advised, however, because it distracts from the strengths of the book. Editor Karin Deutsch Karlekar provides a useful overview suggesting that press freedom worldwide has declined in recent years. Her explanation is clear and logical and tells us more than the numbers do. Chapters by opinion research consultant Brian Katulis and journalists Jeremy Druker and Dean C. K. Cox discuss, respectively, the tentative stirrings of press freedom in post-Saddam Iraq and the political pressures on Ukraine's fragile media system in an election year. Ronald Koven of the World Press Freedom Committee offers another valuable insight. …