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.

5 replies on “Which world leaders are *really really* committed to press freedom?”

If you exclude Ireland for having blasphemy as a punisable offense, Germany should go to, because we have such a law too: §166 StGB

It explicitly makes it illegal to insult the believe (not only the believer). It is lessened by requiring that the insult has to interrupt the “public peace”, but that is too vage, imho.

Just today a reporter asked, if in light of the recent events, this paragraph should be abolished, to which the government replied “there have to be a tradeoff between freedom of expression and freedom of religion”

[…] Over the weekend in Paris there was a so-called “Unity March” in response to last week’s Charlie Hebdo attack. The photographs from the march were striking — even if the famed photo of many world leaders holding hands and marching together turned out to a photo op on a closed street, rather than with the rest of the marchers. And, of course, this was all a facade. Many of the leaders who were there oversee governments that don’t believe in free speech or a free press at all. Here, for example, is Jillian York trying to figure out if any of the leaders truly support freedom of expression. […]

As a Dutch person, I just wanted to say that if we’re leading in press freedom, than y’all are fucked.

Mein Kampf is (still) banned from being sold, speech that discriminates, insults groups or incites violence is banned. Well known politician Wilders (who I am not a fan of) was nearly convicted for saying hurtful things about Islam, and is currently being charged for inciting a crowd to shout they want less Moroccans in the Netherlands. Our prime minister, Mark Rutte, joined other EU leaders like James Cameron in saying we need more mass surveillance so we can tap anyone who might become a terrorist.

So sure, the press might not be doing too badly, but regular people and even politicians are being increasingly restricted by people who clearly don’t understand the first thing about what freedom means.

Kind of a strange analysis. The question is “which countries are really really committed to press freedom”, and you ignore the question of censorship over hate speech because “everyone is doing it”. Doesn’t that mean nobody is really really committed to press freedom? It seems you first decided that your conclusion had to be a list of countries that are, rather than being open to the possibility that nobody is, and so that meant you had to set the criteria to fit that preconceived conclusion.

Like I said in the post, it’s a quick-and-dirty analysis. I’m completely open to the possibility that nobody is, but that would be a far less interesting post.

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