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According to the Press Freedom Index, the US is ranked at a meager 45th position in the global ranking of countries. In comparison, New Zealand is currently at the 8th spot despite having an official "Chief Censor" position and routinely banning the circulation of documents the government dislikes, such as the Cristchurch shooter's manifesto. In the US such censorship would be impossible as the country's First Amendment provides the strongest protections for freedom of the speech in the entire world.

So why isn't the US routinely ranked as #1 in freedom of press ratings? Are there topics which cannot be discussed in US media under the threat of censorship or persecution?

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    There's no doubt that the freedom of speech protections under the First Amendment are strong. But in what basis do we conclude that they are the strongest worldwide? – Obie 2.0 Mar 29 at 8:10
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    So, theoretically, if another country would also have the "same" first ammandment in their constitution (yes, other countries do have constitutions as well. Yes, other countries also protect the freedom of the press), who should then be ranked 1? And on the ammandment: sometimes an idealistic law and bitter reality diverge – Mayou36 Mar 30 at 12:36
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    @JonathanReez that may be true, let's assume it. And now the question: why do you correlate "there is the first ammandement which says that..." with "it is like that"? It is not. There were also books banned in the US. I don't say this is bad per se. I say that the freedom in the US, as is many other countries, is great but not perfect. You imply this perfection in your question (by stating "just because there is the article, it follows that" -> nope, it does not have to). – Mayou36 Mar 30 at 19:37
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    I always find it odd that the US prides itself on free speech but beeps out even mild swearwords on the radio and TV. Isn't that a form of censorship as well? – Sumyrda Mar 30 at 22:07
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    @JamesKPolk Jumping to the conclusion that anyone claiming your country is not perfect must be biased is not helpful. In fact, the mantra with which you've been brought up (that the US is (a) the "free-est" country in the world, and (b) the best country in the world, and (c) the two necessarily correlate) is propaganda/cultism that you'd do well to try to shake; it's you who's biased! – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 31 at 1:18

11 Answers 11

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tim's answer already covers the Press Freedom Index methodology.

I'd like to add that for the United States the significant component of the result is the abuses score of 37.40.

This is a fairly large number: the second highest among the top 50, after Denmark (which has a score of 45, apparently, due to the murder of Kim Wall in 2017).

US Press Freedom Tracker lists 122 cases of abuse in 2018 including:

  • 42 physical attacks;
  • 26 subpoenas/legal orders;
  • 11 arrests;
  • 4 border stops;
  • 8 chilling statements (6 of them from Trump).

As far as I can tell from the methodology, the last category is not included in the abuses score:

the formula for the calculation of final score

which translates to:

scoreExamination = 10 * log(90*number of deaths + Coefficienti*number of imprisonmentsi + 10*number of kidnappings + 5*number of material seizures + 3*number of exiled + number arrests + number assaults)

If the US had the lower abuses score its overall score would have been 20.32 (28th place, just behind Slovakia).

As the abuses score isn't weighted to population, it isn't surprising that the US scores worse than New Zealand:

  • The US is 60 times larger than New Zealand in terms of population.
  • The US is, by and large, a more violent country.
  • The US has a huge news media industry. Wikipedia lists 15 nationwide networks for the US and 1 for New Zealand. I'm pretty sure that the difference is even larger on the local level.

Even on a logarithmic scale, the US is expected to have a higher score.

The rest of the score is based on the questionnaire and the factor of scale doesn't have such an impact on it.

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    So... the United States has a high score because the score doesn't include population (and presumably because the reporting rate for incidents is high)? – chrylis Mar 29 at 8:31
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    Wow, that's incredibly important. No wonder a tiny country like New Zealand is so high up. – Obie 2.0 Mar 29 at 8:38
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    @Obie2.0 It's important, but it's not that important. The rest of the score comes from the questionnaire and doesn't depend on the population. The abuses score is logarithmic which alleviates its impact – default locale Mar 29 at 8:42
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    If you go look at the actual data, "violence against journalists" is everything. Only looking at a small sample, one of the incidents reported was a reporter and his camera crew being robbed at gunpoint and their security guard shot. pressfreedomtracker.us/all-incidents/… While that's obviously not ok by any stretch, a fairly strong case could be made for both that that doesn't have anything to do with how safe being a journalist is, and also that larger populations are much more adversely affected by their methods. – AHamilton Mar 29 at 9:37
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    @Aaron: The link above has a number of non-gun-homicide statistics. The US is significantly higher in all of them. The "knife murders" in particular was apparently a false claim by Trump. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Mar 29 at 20:29
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You need to keep in mind that the press freedom ratings is not a measure of freedom of speech, but freedom of the press, and the US is still ranked as "fairly good".

Specifically, the index describes itself:

What does it measure?

The Index ranks 180 countries and regions according to the level of freedom available to journalists. It is a snapshot of the media freedom situation based on an evaluation of pluralism, independence of the media, quality of legislative framework and safety of journalists in each country and region. It does not rank public policies even if governments obviously have a major impact on their country’s ranking.

They also provide more detail about their methodology and the questionnaire used to create the index is available online.

I was unable to find a full report, but in a short analysis, the index specifically mentions Trumps hostility to the media.

They go into a bit more depth about this in a press release for the 2017 data:

In 2017, the 45th President of the United States helped sink the country to 45th place by labeling the press an “enemy of the American people” in a series of verbal attacks toward journalists, attempts to block White House access to multiple media outlets, routine use of the term “fake news” in retaliation for critical reporting, and calling for media outlets’ broadcasting licenses to be revoked. President Trump has routinely singled out news outlets and individual journalists for their coverage of him, and retweeted several violent memes targeting CNN.

The violent anti-press rhetoric from the White House 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.

However, the Trump effect has only served to amplify 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.

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    I still think it's silly they ranked US on par with South Korea (#43) given the level of censorship in the latter. Interestingly they rank Japan even worse (#67) – Fizz Mar 29 at 7:45
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    Apparently the year-to-year changes in rankings are used to "send a message" based on very recent and often obscure issues. japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/04/25/national/… – Fizz Mar 29 at 7:53
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    Ugh, I feel this information should be in your answer, but it's going to sound like a "Yeah, but what about Obama" post and I don't mean that. Their methodology focuses a fair bit on their feelings towards Trump, but it's worth mentioning that while we have the freedom of information act, how much an administration complies with that is extremely variable. The AP did a report that Obama spent a record 36 million blocking (or trying) requests, which would (should?) account for a lower score as well. www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/obama-administration-sets-new-record-withholding-foia-requests – AHamilton Mar 29 at 8:41
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    @AHamilton Their explanation focuses on Trumps incitement against the media, the resulting physical assaults, etc (in addition to pointing out that "the disappointing press freedom climate [...] predated his presidency"). But their methodology doesn't (it's based on a questionnaire that doesn't mention Trump but is about "pluralism, media independence, media environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency, and the quality of the infrastructure", complimented with data of abuse of journalists). – tim Mar 29 at 8:49
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    The actual questionnaire is located here: rsf.org/en/detailed-methodology It is sent only to journalists operating in that country and the questions contain a significant number of subjective questions rated on a scale of 1 to 10. I wasn't suggesting they were just making up the score, but they took an extremely difficult analytic task and did it horribly, by almost any measure. The question of how the US could be so low has been fully answered though, so having an additional answer to that effect isn't particularly helpful. – AHamilton Mar 29 at 9:50
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The wikipedia page of self censorship just tell part of the story, there are other "invisible hand" such as corporate censorship.

Media may reject story or even advertisement that "offend" their main advertisement buyers. A good example is consumer goods price hikes using creative marketing or packaging : financially self-sustainable consumer group and media in Europe are usually more freely to criticized the corporate practice than USA counterpart.

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    Yes and I would also add that in the US, the so-called free press tend to be large corporations run by corporate oligarchs, mouthpieces for wealthy politically motivated groups. In this context I would say that restricting the press in its present form is a good thing. It ought to be damningly obvious to everyone that whether it be Iraqi WMD or the Russian Collusion day-dream, these propaganda outfits exist primarily to manipulate the sheeple, not enforce their rights to good information. – Sentinel Mar 30 at 10:02
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    @Sentinel - An unironic use of "sheeple," wow. I'll have to get my lottery ticket. – Obie 2.0 Mar 31 at 0:55
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    @Sentinel Do you have any data to support this claim and the claim that the US fares worse in this regard than other countries? – user76284 Mar 31 at 16:22
  • @user76284 The BBC? – Sentinel Mar 31 at 19:14
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    @Sentinel Can you be more specific? – user76284 Apr 1 at 2:23
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While I agree the issues listed by RSF are serious, I would not put too much stock in relative ranking large swaths of such indexes because they can be sensitive from year to year changes on fairly obscure issues.

Compare the ranking on RSF's Freedom Index vs FH's Freedom of the Press

United States  #45 #33
France         #33 #44
South Korea    #43 #66
Japan          #67 #48

How the various issues are weighted in such indexes can have a big impact on relative ranking of countries. Now if some index ranks China (#176 #186) ahead of the US, I'd start to get really worried.

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    You picked four countries and their ranks to compare. How do the rest line up? Maybe a scatterplot would help here. – JAD Mar 29 at 10:52
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    @JAD: alas the only systematic comparison of these indexes (I found) was published 12 years go (and for RSF they had only a couple of years data), and I don't feel inclined to do that level of work for a question here. The correlation was 0.81 back then. – Fizz Mar 29 at 10:54
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    @JAD: a for my non-random sampling: I was shocked they ranked South Korea above the US given the known issues with censorship there. I picked Japan for comparison in the region. And France because RSF is based there, while FH is based in the US. – Fizz Mar 29 at 10:59
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There are multiple issues going on.

The big one is, that you can have rights, but how they are implemented and enforced in practice - the unspoken aspects of it - really are crucial in determining what your real situation is, and your safety or potential risks in exercising those rights.

For example - in some countries you have free speech and freedom - except that you may lose your job, or be taken by secret police if you actually try to use those rights. In others, there are strong incentives that steer companies controlling the media or publication, so that rights are again, hard to really exercise.

It's not a free press if exercising that freedom in good faith risks you getting pejorative treatment, any more than it is encouraging whistleblowing, to have a whistleblowers charter in a company but realistically your career dead-ends anyway and the matter gets hushed up and you described as a problematic troublemaker. In many cases you can fight back legally if treated wrongly, but in others you can't (or its difficult to: money, standing, whatever), and for real press freedom you shouldn't have to.

So when you look at how a country is rated for freedom of the press, you have to nearly ignore the rights people * should * have according to their country's laws and constitutions, because those will almost always say it's fine and great. You have to go by what actually happens on the ground, not what's claimed to be the case or should be the case.

So you look at things more in this kind of way: When journalists come across a story that's negative or harmful to some powerful interest (person, police, govt body, politician), or could be seen as threatening them by suggesting they aren't okay in some way (they treat workers badly, they committed genocide, they're institutionally racist, they broke their own laws or committed illegal acts). Or they've reported on a foreign matter in which their govt has some involvement, or talked down their own or another country/states. How does the country actually treat them?

Will it block them at the borders? Arrest them (many places)? Charge them with defaming the nation? Revoke their right to attend press conferences? Harass them? Pressure the employer to fire or discipline them, or dissociate itself from their reports (subtly or not so subtly), or begin an "investigation" into "irregularities" at the employer such as tax related? Consider them legitimate targets for surveillance/tapping? Or what? What about foreign journalists?

Unfortunately in that light, many countries that you'd think do well, actually don't. Because its in those kinds of cases, that press freedom is really tested and able to be seen (or not) for what it really is.

  • Update: The saying that "It's the exception that proves the rule" is very relevant here. The word "proves" in this saying has its olden-day meaning of "tests" (as in the expression "put to the proof") - it is the exceptions and edge cases that really test and demonstrate how "real" a rule or belief is, not the regular ordinary cases which anyone can point to and say "see? it's fine".
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Disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer and not an U.S. citizen.

The formal "Freedom of Speech" in the U.S. means that the government (lawmaking, executive etc.) must not restrict the speech of its citizens in any form or fashion. I.e., it is a restriction of the government. It does not necessarily mean that everybody can say or write anything at all without any kind of repercussions.

E.g., APPLYING THE CONSTITUTION TO PRIVATE ACTORS (NEW YORK LAW JOURNAL):

With the notable exception of the Thirteenth Amendment’s ban on slavery, the individual liberties guaranteed by the United States Constitution protect against actions by government officials but not against actions by private persons or entities.

You can find plenty of further reading in the collection of sources linked from here.

This means that any other involved party (except the government) are not covered under the "Freedom of Speech" moniker. Or, in concrete terms; everybody is free to go to the courts to try to shut down their neighbour (which according to the comments may be hard in practice); and of course resort to non-constructive or even shady/illegal activites as laid down in other answers.

It is absolutely not the case that anybody can just say anything at any point in time without consequences.

Examples where Freedom of Speech will not help you:

  • If your boss does not like how you talk to him (or what you write), he can fire you in concordance with whatever regulation your state has, i.e. "Right to Work", or remove you from your current position and "park" you somewhere else in his company.
  • If you spread harmful lies about people, they are free to go to court to make you stop. And of course they can try to do the same even if what you wrote is true. Or try to cow you with a large lawyer budget.
  • While you seemingly are allowed to openly insult police officers - they are associated with the government after all and thus under the Freedom of Speech limitations regarding retalation against you - you certainly cannot do that to just anybody without repercussions.
  • Going to a meeting of (non-government) people of the other side of the political spectrum and starting a ruckus may absolutely get you into trouble (depending on how beligerent everybody is - not with the "government" but with the guys actually there); and Freedom of Speech does not protect you (other laws may of course, i.e. if they beat you up while throwing you out of the building).

There may be other laws making the work of the press easier, but Freedom of Speech is not necessarily one of them. The index linked in the question mentions a few other (non-governmental) forms of suppression.

In the end, there are many ways to repress or discourage a member of the press without conflicting with Freedom of Speech.

  • I think you've misunderstood how it works. The government doesn't have to be either the target of the speech or a party thereof. They can't restrict what people say regardless. Example: the government can't pass a law saying that no one can insult Wal-Mart. Also, slander and libel lawsuits are extremely difficult to win, especially against individuals. Finally, in some jurisdictions there are protections against being fired without cause. – Obie 2.0 Mar 29 at 9:51
  • Further, how does this address the press freedom index issue? Only the last part seems to mention it and it's not very clear to me how it all ties in. – Obie 2.0 Mar 29 at 9:53
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    Thanks for the comments, @Obie. I'll try to make my train of thought more clear later (basically I want to say "Freedom of Speech does not mean that everybody can say anything all the time" ;) ). – AnoE Mar 29 at 14:18
  • @Obie, please check my revisions. Does that make more sense now, or is the answer too "all over the place", still? – AnoE Mar 29 at 16:20
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    @Mazura: You are incorrect. The first amendment covers all branches of government including the executive branch. Executive orders are reviewable by the courts and must not violate the constitution. – James K Polk Mar 30 at 21:26
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Because the United States is a superpower.

Like other freedoms, press freedom is a matter of negative and positive liberties. Constitutions and laws establish negative liberties, which serve as the foundation of the freedom of the press. Positive liberties, driven by the priorities of successive administrations over decades, determine whether the freedom can be actualized. This is where the United States loses.

The stakes are always high in the politics of a superpower, and the priorities are often driven by the needs of the powerful. Many actions are justified by matters of national security. Yet every time the national security justification is used, something else is valued higher than freedom. Small countries with lesser ambitions can often afford more freedom, if they choose so. Their political issues tend to be less serious, and their administrations can concentrate more on domestic matters.

Most countries that rank consistently higher than the US in the Press Freedom Index and the Freedom of the Press report are ones with modest international ambitions. Instead of trying to change the world, their administrations have prioritized making the country a good place to live in. The United States also used to be like that, but its administrations have had other priorities since WW2.

Edited to clarify: The comparisons are not about theoretical freedoms protected by constitutions and laws. They tell how often the freedom of the press is violated in practice, regardless of the reason. Every time a court forces a journalist to reveal their sources or a whistleblower is jailed for revealing classified information, press freedom is violated. It does not matter that the reasons for the violation may be morally and constitutionally justified, because it's still a violation. Major powers cannot afford as much freedom as certain lesser countries, because they have other priorities. Their national security issues are simply more serious, and they face such issues more frequently.

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    This answer fails to make any concrete or complete points in either direction regarding free speech in the U.S. and frankly is absolutely useless. One can obtain very little from it. – marshal craft Mar 30 at 4:10
  • I don't know if this is the criterion that they used. Maybe it's a good one, but is it what's behind their classification? – Obie 2.0 Mar 31 at 1:13
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The United States ranked 45th worldwide in press freedom this year, slipping two spots from last year's ranking, according to Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index.

The backdrop: Since President Trump was elected in 2016, the U.S. has dropped from 41st to 45th in Reporters Without Borders' rankings. However, it ranked as low as 47th in 2011 during the Obama administration — despite ranking as high as 20th in 2009.

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    It is not clear how this answers the question from OP. – Alexei Mar 29 at 14:43
  • It at least attempts to describe a relation both of the absolute score, and changing score, with time periods, this can be useful in several ways. – marshal craft Mar 30 at 4:17
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One aspect of the rating is, frankly, silly. It demonstrates the perils of applying numbers without context.

I refer, of course, to "chilling" statements by Trump.

It has been well-established for 30 years now that the "mainstream media" (minus Fox News, of course) is personally overwhelmingly (liberal/progressive/left of center). As a result, chilling statements by Trump only serve as a goad to further criticism of him. Which, frankly, is as it should be.

In a country with greater government control of the press, chilling comments are a serious issue. Unless I seriously misunderstand my own country (and if I did, I wouldn't realize it, of course), at least in the current political climate this illustrates that not all criteria have the same applicability between all countries.

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Because the chief censor does not often interfere with news reporting, the recent banning of the hate manifesto and the mass murder video were unusual (as was the event itself)

The chief censor does not report directly to the government and is not beholden to the goverment's whims. Their responsibility is to suppress publications that are harmful to society.

I'm pretty sure is an a reporter in USA tried to publish a report on child sex that included still or motion pictures of childeren engaged in sexual acts this work would also be subject to censorship.

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    This doesn't support or refute the assumption that New Zealand has superior rights to the U.S. only defends New Zealand which is unnecessary because the extreme circumstances surrounding the issues raised are a completely different question pertaining to trade of rights and security. – marshal craft Mar 30 at 4:14
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    Censoring the shooter's manifesto and video is censoring newsworthy content. "suppress publications that are harmful to society" is doublespeak is typically something heard of only in authoritarian societies. – James K Polk Mar 30 at 15:56
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    In a free society you don't need permission from the state to publish, nor do you need to prove the "newsworthiness" of speech. – James K Polk Mar 30 at 21:10
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    @Jasen - All of it? Knowing what motivated them, knowing who they're affiliated with. Knowing what characteristics far-right people might have. Those are all very important and thus newsworthy. Even little things...in the video they told people to subscribe to Pewdiepie, establishing that Pewdiepie's white supremacist following is both real and more serious than many people had thought. – Obie 2.0 Mar 31 at 1:10
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    I think this answer is important because the question asserts, incorrectly, that New Zealand "routinely" bans the circulation of documents the government dislikes. It is entirely possible that NZ will get dinged for this incident when the Press Freedom Index is next updated, but the current rating can't and doesn't reflect something that AFAIK has never happened before. +1. – Harry Johnston Mar 31 at 3:41
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The press freedom index does not measure rights, it measures the experience of journalists.

If you look at the two nations of your example USA and NZ the difference are clear. The censor in New Zealand does not assess content on whether it hurts the government, the military or any other special interest group, only on whether releasing it will harm society. instructions on bomb-making and cooking methamphetamine are suppressed, reports into possible war-crimes in Afghanistan or financial malfeasance are not.

I'm sure USA has censors too, is the murder video or the hate manifesto available there?

USA is chasing whistle-blowers, NZ is strengthening protection for them.

etc.

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    Both the video and the manifesto are legal to distribute in the US. – JonathanReez Mar 30 at 5:14
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    This reads like pro-NZ censor propaganda. The USA does not have censors, there is no such thing as "hate" speech, and the NZ shooter's video and manifesto is absolutely protected in the US by its 1st amendment. Finally, you last point is simplistic and false. The US has strong protection for whisteblowers, but releasing classified information is against the law in the both the US and NZ. – James K Polk Mar 30 at 15:50
  • @James - Someone's opinion isn't propaganda just because it's supportive of the government. – Obie 2.0 Mar 31 at 1:15
  • Jasen, why not combine your two answers? They don't look very separate. – Obie 2.0 Mar 31 at 1:16

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