“Freedom of the press” and “freedom of speech” are phrases we often hear in American society today. After all, it’s in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Today, we are used to scrolling through Twitter and Facebook and being able to access the latest headlines the second they happen, thanks to these apps and the growth of online journalism. Can you imagine, however, living in a world where we don’t have this kind of access?
This year, the organization, Freedom House, released findings of a study of 198 countries’ press freedom with “press freedom” meaning level of censorship, government crackdowns on print and online media, and journalist safety. The results: two thirds of the 198 nations studied fell into the categories “free” or “partially free.” That seems admirable, right? Here’s the catch: these nations only represent 1/7 of the world population. That means that 6/7 or 85 percent of the world’s population lives without easy access to reputable news sources. These countries include China, Russia, Mexico, Ukraine, Belarus, Thailand, etc. The casual scrolling we do through Twitter on our smartphones while waiting for a train or or when we don’t feel like going to sleep that we take for granted, therefore, is a minority.
But lack of access to information is something that only developing countries or countries with oppressive governments face, right? Think again. Every year, the organization Reporters Without Borders ranks nations around the world in terms of their press freedom and freedom of information. This year, the highest-ranking country was Finland, which also ranks the highest in terms of education. North Korea and Eritrea (on the Horn of Africa) consistently rank last.
We would expect the United States to rank fairly high, but this year, the United States ranked 46th out of 198 countries, placing us well behind many of our supposed contemporaries. 46th? How can that be? The United States was given this ranking because information is increasingly suppressed for “national security” purposes and leaks from individuals such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are causing the government to view reporters with suspicion. One could argue that this suppression and suspicion is in line with an increasingly state-controlled media system, something we see with lower-ranked countries such as North Korea. Of course, our access to online media in general puts us well above these countries, but we have dropped thirteen places in the past year. This is a trend that must be examined with the utmost scrutiny if we are to continue to uphold our Constitution.
In December of 1993, the United Nations General Assembly declared World Press Freedom Day would occur every year on May 3rd. On this day, we have the opportunity to celebrate what it means to have a free press, pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in an effort to report information from war-torn places such as Syria and Iraq, and work towards creating a more informed and ultimately educated society. The Smart Girl is someone who seeks to understand the world and what is going on in it so it is up to everyone to ensure that this is a possibility.