Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: January 2015

Which world leaders are *really really* committed to press freedom?

Yesterday, the Guardian asked a good question, which it then immediately failed to answer. The question was, in the context of the Paris unity march: “Which world leaders are really committed to press freedom?” Rather than answer it, however, the authors repeated the many articles and tweets of the past few days, focusing on the hypocrisy of leaders from countries like Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey, who turned out for the march despite a track record of repressing speech at home.

But what would it look like to instead answer the question? Limiting the data set to those countries whose leaders* turned up in Paris, I shall attempt to do so. Since it is a rather long list (and this a quick and dirty blog post I’m writing in my spare time), I’ve eliminated countries designated by Freedom House** as “partly free” (Albania, Armenia, Kosovo, Lebanon, Turkey Togo, Mali, Niger) “not free” (Gabon, Russia, UAE, Jordan, Algeria, Palestine, Saudi Arabia), as well as those already eliminated by their presence Guardian piece (Israel). Remember, the goal is to find the countries that are really committed to press freedom, so elimination needn’t be an exact science.

The second step toward shortening the list was to consult Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. While the index has been criticized for playing fast and loose with data, it too is a good macro-measure of dedication to press freedom, at least in the manner in which I’m using it, which is to draw a solid baseline. By selecting only the top 30 of that list, we eliminate the UK, Spain, Latvia, France, Italy, Benin, Bulgaria, Malta, Romania, Croatia, Slovakia, Serbia, Senegal, Hungary, Greece, and Ukraine.***

The remaining countries, below, all rank within Reporters Without Borders’ Top 30, with the exception of Monaco, which isn’t included in the rankings. Now, as I said, Reporters Without Borders’ rankings are a great baseline, but I’m going to do my own super scientific**** analysis, awarding only one country the honor of being really, really committed to press freedom.


This country comes in 12th in the RSF index, but scored a 21 in Freedom House’s 2013 Global Press Freedom Rankings alongside the United Kingdom (which has been declining in freedoms for some time), so that gives me pause.  A deeper look shows that Austria has stringent criminal libel laws, so that’s no good. Nazi propaganda and anti-Semitism are prohibited by law (perhaps understandable given the country’s history, but not a good basis for press freedom). The country has also been ranked in the bottom 10 in a global study on access to information. Austria: Not today’s winner.


Belgium ranks 23rd on RSF’s index, but scored an 11 in the FH rankings. Like Austria, the country prohibits hate speech (but so does most of Europe, so it’s not really a factor). Belgium has solid source protection legislation (a huge plus) but awful copyright restrictions (less great). Verdict: Still in the running.

Czech Republic

Although this central European nation ranks 13th in RSF’s index and scores a 19 in FH’s, this sentence gives me some pause: “Freedom of the press is constitutionally guaranteed, though the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms prohibits speech that might infringe on national security, individual rights, public health, or morality, or that may evoke hatred based on race, ethnicity, or national origin. Libel remains a criminal offense, but prosecutions are rare.” That said, the last major incident (a 2011 raid of a television station for showing allegedly classified military documents on air) was four years ago, so the Czech Republic gets another chance.


Coming in 7th on RSF’s list and scoring a 12 from FH, not much seems rotten in the state of Denmark; in fact this northern European nation looks poised to beat out Belgium.  A closer look shows that Denmark prosecutes somewhat regularly for violations of its hate speech regulations; about 50 people have been prosecuted since 2000. Like Belgium, Denmark has pretty strict copyright regulations that sometimes result in Internet censorship.


Estonia is ranked 11th by RSF and scores a 16 from FH. The country gets extra points for its track record on online freedom, but loses a couple for a 2010 law that could allow for prosecution of journalists who fail to reveal their sources in major crimes cases (note: no one has ever been prosecuted under that statute). Estonia: Possible winner.


Finland is like that kid that you wish would stay home sick because you know that if he competes, he’ll win. The Scandinavian country ranked first in both 2013 and 2014 on RSF’s index, and scores an 11  from FH. Its one disadvantage is its continued criminalization of defamation. Still in the running? Yes.


Germany comes in 14th in RSF’s index, and scores a 17 from FH. Despite overbroad surveillance, the country has a robust press and good (but costly) access to information. Germany also ranks highly in FH’s Freedom on the Net report, although its copyright regulators are so notoriously horrible that a book dedicated to understanding “how to be German” cites “hating GEMA” as a key step. Disqualified? No, Germany, you can stay.


Ireland ranks 16th in RSF’s index, and scores a 16 from FH. Blasphemy, however, is a punishable offence, thanks to a law that was enacted in 2009. Perhaps being eliminated from my Super Important Rankings will prompt Ireland to change that law – until then, bye, bye, Ireland.


Oh, tiny Luxembourg, bless you. Ranking 4 in RSF’s index and scoring a 12 from FH, Luxembourg is surely in the running, though it doesn’t seem quite fair given its size.


I reserve the right to eliminate Monaco at this stage in the game for not totally being a country.


The Netherlands comes in 2nd in the RSF index and gets a score of 11 from FH. The country has a good freedom of information act, no Internet censorship, and was the second country in the world to enshrine net neutrality into law. That said, the Netherlands is still working toward strong source protection laws. Definitely a contender, though.


Norway comes in 3rd in the RSF index and scores a 10 (the best) from FH. The country’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression, and the right to access government information, and there are no restrictions on Internet usage. It’s also telling that the Committee to Protect Journalists has absolutely zero articles that are about Norway’s press freedom. Norway: A possible winner.


Coming in 19th in RSF’s index and scoring a 26 from FH should eliminate Poland at this stage in the game. Sorry, Poland.


Similarly, Portugal’s rank of 30 (RSF) and score of 17 from FH eliminates it at this stage.


Sweden comes in 10th in RSF’s index and nabs a score of 10 (the best, alongside Norway) from FH. While Sweden’s press operates pretty freely, I found this line from Freedom House a bit concerning:”…most of the mainstream media view criticism of immigration and Islam as a form of hate speech.” Although I haven’t disqualified other countries from the running for hate speech laws (owing to the fact that they’re so common in Europe), this reeks of self-censorship and gives me pause, as does the existence of the Swedish Press Council, which “has jurisdiction over print and online content” and can levy administrative fines. Sorry, Sweden, you’re out.


Switzerland comes in 15th in RSF’s index but scores a 12 from FH, which warrants a second look. It seems that Switzerland prosecutes for hate speech violations (not a surprise nor a reason to eliminate) and for publishing leaked information containing state secrets (which disqualifies the small nation from this study).


And now, for the final reveal (drumroll, please). Based on my Super Scientific Analysis*****, I have made my final determinations. Coming in third place, thanks to that pesky criminal defamation law: Finland. Coming in at second: Norway. And coming in first, thanks to its proactive efforts to guarantee both a free press and a free Internet: the Netherlands. I hereby declare the Netherlands’ leaders to be really really committed to press freedom.

Edit: Parker Higgins reminds me of this 2012 debacle. Close one, Netherlands.

Disagree? Tell me in the comments.




*For the purpose of this exercise, I have defined “leaders” as “current ministers or equivalent.” I have excluded ambassadors; while their effort was surely appreciated, you have to draw a line somewhere.

**There is much to say about Freedom House’s biases at the micro level, but as a macro resource, it’s fairly useful.

***The United States, which was excluded for not having sent anyone higher-ranking than the ambassador to France, would have been eliminated at this point for coming in at #47 in the rankings.

****Not scientific.

*****Not even remotely scientific.

Some interesting reading on Charlie Hebdo

A note from Kathy Sierra

I received a lovely email last night from Kathy Sierra after she saw her name repeatedly being mentioned in the context of EFF’s legal support of weev, particularly in the aftermath of our latest post on harassment. She also sent a statement of sorts that I am free to publish as I wish; Kathy’s words are in full below.

I’ve seen my name brought up in discussions around EFF’s support of weev and hope to clarify a few things:

EFF’s help and support on weev’s case is a reason I can sleep a little better at night. As so many others have noted, that EFF supported *one of the worst people* suggests you’ll help any of us under similar circumstances. I don’t believe for a moment that you took weev’s case on *because* he was a notorious, media/attention-grabbing defendant. I believe you took his case on in spite of it. For whatever appreciation and respect you earned for this in the infosec community, you’ve seen an order of magnitude more abuse for it.

My only complaint about the EFF’s support of weev was the same complaint I had about the tech press: whether intentional or not, you helped spin his image and bolstered his credibility. You did this in a hundred different ways, in a hundred different press releases, tweets, posts, messages. That hurt and misled a lot of people and it wasn’t necessary. That’s the sum total and end of my complaint about the EFF, and I can’t say you were wrong to have done it. That case was terrifying.

We need EFF to do exactly what it’s doing. There is something I fear far more than an online world in which women are subjected to violent “wishful thinking” threats, doxxing, and harassment. I fear a world in which free speech is chipped away, piece by piece, by well-intended people. People like me, from 7 years ago, when I was in the midst of violations of my virtual — and real-life — safety and privacy. I was wrong, back then, for thinking the sorts of threats many of us now find quite common should not be not protected. They are, and they need to stay that way.

I’m beyond sad that we live in a world now where so many people exploit their freedom of speech for no purpose beyond cruelty and hate and lulz. Not as free expression or to “punch up” against a government or corporations or the powerful but simply to abuse the powerless — easy targets — for lulz. Too many people should never have been put in a position to have to give up so much to preserve freedom of speech. But thanks to social media, we are where we are now.

But I do think the EFF can help us support freedom of speech by helping us minimize the damage harassment “speech” (and the fear of it) is creating today. The path forward is not to seek to punish or restrict that speech but to help us craft strategies to reduce its impact. The EFF can help us protect our rights ourselves before that option is permanently taken from us.

Those who pose the greatest threat to freedom of speech in the west today are NOT those using it to rail against tyranny or the powerful, but those who — in very large numbers — are using it to relentlessly harass and abuse and bully and silence large groups of people. From a systems point of view, it makes sense that people who’ve been on the receiving end of endless attacks or watched friends and family suffer will inevitably feel there IS no other option but to create more restrictive speech laws. “Surely THIS is not protected speech!” they say. As I once said. I was so so so wrong. But I can empathize with others who feel this way. And it’s quite scary to imagine what will happen if the number of people who feel this way keeps scaling.

EFF can help us rethink our online communities and make the cultural shift necessary to get us off our current path. Because if we stay this course, and more and more people are subjected to the torrents of online (and spilling into real life) abuse, I can’t see how we WON’T end up with more laws against speech. If we don’t fix this, some form of law enforcement might. And we’re all screwed if that happens.

EFF can help us make that cultural shift. EFF can help us preserve freedom of speech by not glorifying those who push the boundaries. Support them, yes. Inadvertently glorify them, no. EFF can help us preserve freedom of speech by harshly criticizing those who exploit their freedom by using it to harass, abuse, bully, and ruin not the powerful, but the easy targets. EFF can help us by saying, “Hey, asshole, we will defend your right to be an asshole because it matters” and THEN adding, “but don’t you dare say you’re helping fight for freedom of speech because it’s people like you who are seriously fucking it up for the rest of us.”

We need to change the environment in a way that makes harassment far less easy and rewarding for the harassers, because we desperately need options — and we need to take action — before that choice is no longer available.

I’d love to see the EFF bring people together to help figure out a way forward. Whether its a weekend “idea-a-thon”, or a meeting, or an ongoing project, anything. And whatever you do, if you need another body volunteering, I’m here raising my hand.
— Kathy Sierra

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