147th in the world - behind the Democratic Republic of Congo?
The France-based non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders recently released their Worldwide Press Freedom index, which ranks Russia as 147th on a list of 168 countries in terms of protecting journalists and media expression. Russia's 147th ranking is five spots behind the Democratic Republic of Congo, the site of the bloodiest conflict in the world, and just a few spots ahead of Iraq, where 85 journalists have died violently since 2003. Russia even allegedly lags nineteen spots behind Kazakhstan, where President-for-Life Nursultan Nazarbayev erected a golden statue of himself and whose government has threatened to sue the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen for his "Borat" comedy act.
The list goes on. The Palestinian Authority is ranked thirteen spots ahead of Russia, even though reporters have been kidnapped or threatened by Hamas for reporting weapons smuggling tunnels dug under houses, the launching of rockets at Israeli towns, and the indoctrination of children to create suicide bombers. Lebanon, where Hezbollah recently threatened reporters with death for filming rocket launchers that the militia had cynically placed in crowded neighborhoods, is ranked 107th. The list also ranks the "extra-territorial" United States, which includes the U.S. military in Iraq (not just the country's struggling new government) as 119th in press freedom, while the Israeli-administered Palestinian territories were ranked 135th -- far behind several war-torn African countries that do not have a history of press freedom or strong civilian control over their militaries.
Reporters Without Borders also claims that American journalists are less free than their counterparts in France. However, this month two French writers were ordered by a court to pay a fine for challenging a 2002 France2 TV report from the Israel-Palestine conflict. France2 continues to defend their official story that a Palestinian boy named Mohammed Al-Dura was shot dead by Israeli soldiers, even though forensic evidence suggests that the Israelis were not in position to fire the fatal shots and that Al-Dura was actually shot from point blank range, from the direction of the camera man who was filming alongside Palestinian gunmen.
Another oddity that Americans who have worked South of the Border will notice is Mexico's harsh 132nd ranking. Like Russia, Mexico has only recently emerged as a democracy and is struggling with organized crime and corruption, but few Mexican journalists would trade places with their counterparts working under the watchful eyes of Hezbollah.
Undeniably, there is censorship in Russia -- Russian law prohibits news agencies from revealing details about ongoing counterterrorism operations, and many Russians continue to question the government's official accounts of the Moscow theater seizure and the Beslan school massacre. More recently, Danish cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed were banned in Chechnya and a British satirical artist was detained at a Moscow airport for having photographs depicting suicide bombers in sexy lingerie. With Islam the fastest growing religion in the country, Russian security agencies and newspapers are sensitive to anything that could provoke bloodshed. Despite some self-censorship, the Mohammed cartoons were published outside Chechnya in a secular humanist-sponsored journal and in several Russian newspapers. It should be noted also that the response from Russian Muslims was restrained compared to the blood-curdling calls by London and Paris-based Islamists to behead the offending cartoonist.
The assassination of Anna Politovskaya two weeks ago came as a deep shock to Russian civil society, coming as it did on the heels of the apparent contract killing of Putin's handpicked Central Bank Vice President Andrei Kozlov. In recent weeks, both pro-government and opposition media voices have asked whether anyone is really safe in Russia and what can be done to protect journalists, businessmen and government officials from the assassin's bullet. The murder last week of Dimitry Fotianov, a popular member of Putin's United Russia Party in the Far East, prompted even more outrage and demands from citizens for the rule of law.
Clearly Russia is not a mature democracy like the United States or the Western European countries; Russians are still struggling to defeat the forces of lawlessness and establish the public trust necessary for civil society to flourish. Even so, Reporters Without Borders' rankings are intellectually indefensible, given the fact that ordinary Russians (unlike people in China, Iran, and many Arab countries) enjoy uncensored access to the Internet, numerous Western television networks, thousands of privately owned newspapers, and popular opposition radio stations. American conservatives in particular, who often question many Reporters Without Borders claims about the United States and Israel, should receive the NGO's relative rankings of press freedom in Russia with some healthy skepticism.
UPDATE: A version of this article has been published over at World Politics Watch.