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Good Luck, and Be Careful When You Cross the Street

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

CommGAP's latest book, Public Sentinel, outlines the role of the news media in governance reform, which is of course all about the roles of journalists in society and political systems. The book identifies three main roles - agenda setters, watchdogs, and gatekeepers - that journalists should, ideally, fulfill in order to strengthen good governance. Looking at a recent report on The State of Freedom of Expression in the Americas, all I can say to a journalist who indeed wants to uphold those ideals: Good luck, and be careful when you cross the street.

The report analyzes violations of freedom of expression as recorded by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights between 1998 and 2008. The Rapporteurship does not only analyze violations against journalists, although most of their cases seem to be about media. Freedom House reports the Americas to be second only to Western Europe in terms of press freedom, with only two countries rated as "not free." Freedom House also notes that several countries in the Americas have taken a turn for the worse in 2008.

The time series of violations as analyzed by the Center for Studies on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information does not find any systematic increases in particular types of violations, however, several points stand out. For one, more than half of all violations are violent in nature, this includes physical and psychological aggression - such as sending funeral flowers to the home of a journalist - and plain murder. The Rapporteurship recorded about 1,500 of such cases in the ten years analyzed, and that's just the number of known incidences.

Interestingly, the only time trend that was found was a decrease in libel cases. Libel laws, an old enemy of the free press, seem to be applied less and less in the Americas. Having said that, penal action, censorship, and abuse of public power constitute a sizable portion of the violations, adding up to almost 800 reported cases between 1998 and 2008.

To be fair, the Americas are not the world's trouble child in terms of freedom of expression by far. On Freedom House's map of press freedom, large parts of Asia and Africa shine a vivid blue, the color for "not free." Still, if you're a hopeful and idealistic journalist - anywhere in the world - may I suggest you don't go out alone after dark? And get a hard hat, just in case.

Picture credit: Flickr user dalvenjah