Stupid Index Tricks

The United States has less press freedom than 54 countries. Or does it?

President Joe Biden talks to reporters as he departs an event with attendees from the U.S. Conference of Mayors Winter Meeting, Friday, January 20, 2023, in the East Room of the White House.
Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith

BBC (“Governments not protecting press freedom, report says“):

Political attacks on journalists are increasing across the globe, according to the annual World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.

These attacks include the detention of journalists, the spreading of misinformation and suppression of independent voices.

With more than half of the world’s population going to the polls in 2024, governments are failing to protect journalism, the organisation says.

The report comes as the BBC warned that over 300 of its journalists were now working in exile from their home countries, amid increasing attacks on their reporting.

“Some political groups fuel hatred and distrust of journalists by insulting them, discrediting them, and threatening them,” the organisation – known by its French acronym RSF – said.

RSF’s index ranks 180 countries on the ability for journalists to work without interference or threats.

Norway retained its spot at the top and “information desert” Eritrea came bottom, taking over from last year’s lowest-ranked nation, North Korea. The bottom 10 also includes China, Iran, Afghanistan, and Syria.

Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, Estonia, Portugal, Ireland, Switzerland and Germany rounded out the top 10.

The UK rose three places to 23, with RSF criticising the dominant role held by News UK, Reach Plc and Daily Mail and General Trust in the market.

Authoritarian regimes across the Middle East have been tightening their grip on news and information with “increasing vigour”, according to the report.

Four of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran, are in the region and continue to detain newsgatherers, according to the RSF report.

At least 100 journalists have been killed in Gaza between 7 October 2023 and 1 May 2024, according to the RSF.

The United States (55) has fallen 10 places ahead of elections due to increasing attacks on journalists from political players.

The report also criticised the “highly concentrated” model of US media ownership, adding that “many of the companies buying American media outlets appear to prioritize profits over public interest journalism”.

So, there are 54 countries in the world where the press is more free than in the United States, with its vaunted 1st Amendment? That’s quite sobering! And, clearly, the press must be inordinately free in a lot of countries.

None will be shocked to see Norway, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Finland as the most free. But they’re followed by Estonia and Portugal. And it’s counterintuitive, indeed, that Latvia (12), Czech Republic (17), Timor-Leste (20), Samoa (22), Moldova (31), Namibia (34), Dominican Republic (35 Armenia (43), Tonga (45), Ghana (50), and Ivory Coast (53) have more press freedom.

Curious, I dug into the RSF “country file” for Estonia (6th), Dominican Republic (35th), and the United States (55th) for comparison. (No, these aren’t cherry-picked. I chose Estonia because it was the first non-obvious counter on the list and the Dominican Republic because it was non-obvious and exactly 20 places higher on the list. I didn’t look at any others.)

Topline summary


Although press freedom is guaranteed on the legal and political levels, journalists face the risk of self-censorship due to anti-defamation legislation and cyber-bullying.

Dominican Republic:

In the Dominican Republic, freedom of the press and of expression are real and guaranteed by the Constitution. Recent years have seen a decline in verbal and physical attacks on journalists.


After a sharp increase in 2020, freedom of the press violations have fallen significantly in the United States, but major structural barriers to press freedom persist in this country, once considered a model for freedom of expression.

Offhand, this doesn’t sound like three wildly different media environments. And, blind-ranking just on the descriptions, I’d certainly put USA ahead of DR.

Media landscape


Subject to consolidation over the last decade, the Estonian media market now features two major media houses (Postimees Group and Ekspress Group), public broadcaster ERR, local media, and a number of independent online outlets. Russian-speaking media, including a public TV channel, public and private radio stations, as well as independent websites cater to the Russian-speaking minority that makes up 25% of the population. 


As Dominican democracy seems to consolidate, the media has taken on a more important role and its influence has increased. The media landscape is diverse and dynamic, and journalists regularly uncover scandals involving current or former political figures, as well as their entourage. The population has access to all media. Major newspapers have both print and digital versions, television and radio broadcast daily news programs, and the Internet has grown to become a mass medium that has given rise to smaller outlets. The newspapers with the largest circulations are Diario Libre and Listín Diario, with the latter being distributed for free since its inception.


While the mainstream media in the United States generally operates free from government interference, media ownership is highly concentrated, and many of the companies buying American media outlets appear to prioritize profits over public interest journalism. In a diverse global media landscape, local news has declined significantly in recent years. A growing interest in partisan media threatens objectivity, while public confidence in the media has fallen dangerously.

Again, the rankings bear no obvious relationship to the descriptions. While I wouldn’t consider media consolidation a measure of “freedom,” it’s clearly a problem. But no country on the planet has more diversity of media outlets than the United States. DR is ranked twenty spots higher and praised for newspapers having both print and digital editions—which has been the norm here for going on three decades now. And, certainly, the American press routinely uncovers scandals.

Political context


The political environment has been characterized by a relative neutrality towards journalism and few verbal attacks, which has contributed to journalists being able to hold politicians accountable without fear of persecution.


More and more journalists are identified as having links with political parties. As in other countries, politicians present their positions and ideas in the press. Disinformation or smear campaigns targeting the media are relatively rare in the Dominican Republic, and most occur on social media. These campaigns also work to spread false information about the country.


After four years of President Donald Trump’s constant denigration of the press, his successor, President Joe Biden, declared that “journalism is not a crime.” Despite this rhetoric, many of the chronic, underlying issues affecting journalists remain unaddressed, and Biden himself has come under criticism for failing to press US partners like Israel and Saudi Arabia on press freedom.

Again, the writeups and rankings are wildly out of sync. The US President staunchly stands up for press freedom but is being downgraded for not pressing Saudi Arabia harder?!

Legal framework


Although constitutionally guaranteed, media freedom is constrained by legislation protecting against defamation and disclosure of private data. While the fear of defamation lawsuits may lead to self-censorship, the laws protecting private data have recently become a pretext of Estonian authorities to increasingly restrict media’s access to public information. The ethical framework for journalists is codified by the Association of Media Companies and by most media organizations separately.


The Dominican Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, but some articles of the Penal Code still impose prison sentences for journalists found guilty of defamation or slander. In recent years, the Constitutional Court (TCRD) has declared unconstitutional sanctions imposed on directors or owners of media outlets who authorise the publication of information written by a third party (journalist or columnist). Several bills aimed at decriminalising press offences have been submitted to the bicameral congress. The government has set up a commission of journalists and jurists to study amendments to Law 6132 on the expression and dissemination of thought, which dates from the early 1960s.


There is a growing push to revisit the landmark New York Times Co. v Sullivan decision, which largely shields the media from defamation lawsuits. The PRESS Act, a federal shield law aimed at protecting journalists and their sources, narrowly defeated in 2022, is still under consideration in the Senate. The US government continues to pursue the extradition of WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, who remains in detention in the United Kingdom, to face justice on charges related to the publication of classified documents in 2010. More than a dozen states and communities have proposed or enacted laws to limit journalists’ access to public spaces, including barring them from legislative meetings and preventing them from recording the police. 

What country on the planet allows the theft and dissemination of its classified documents? Otherwise, once again, the description makes the US legal framework sound considerably friendlier to journalists than the countries ranked well ahead.

Economic context


Media ownership in Estonia is so concentrated that it can be considered an oligopoly. The owners of the two major media groups also have stakes in other business sectors. Estonian private media are operating within a small market with limited access to funding, which constrains them to looking for new revenue sources such as organizing events. The budget for public broadcasting is increasingly limited and may be subject to political influence.


Pay TV and the Internet have fostered the appearance of dozens of programs and small online media outlets. The most important publications have emphasised their online content and reduced their paper format. Due to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, they have also had to reduce their page numbers. Publicity, whether public or private, plays an essential role in the development of the press. While public campaigns are still mainly directed at larger media outlets, smaller ones have also benefitted. Politicians are increasingly involved in television and Internet programs that they create in order to have a platform to air their views. Some, however, start programs on other topics so as to maintain some relevance.


Economic constraints have a considerable impact on journalists. Roughly one third of the American newspapers operating in 2005 have now shuttered. While some public media outlets, and radio stations in particular, have been able to offset this decline thanks to online subscription models, others have found ways to sustain growth through individual donations. Massive waves of layoffs swept the US media throughout 2023 and have continued into 2024, affecting both local newsrooms and major legacy outlets like the Washington Post, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, NBC News, Vice Media and Vox. Over 3,000 jobs were lost in the news industry in 2023, the highest rate since 2020 when over 16,000 jobs were cut.

Again, it seems that the comparison standards are wildly different. That most of the American press is profit-driven certainly has side effects—but so does government-run, nonprofit press. But, even with the consolidation of newspaper chains and local television and radio, the situation could hardly be described as an “oligopoly.”

Sociocultural context


Although no long-term cultural or societal constraints have prevented journalists from doing their job, the media were accused by a part of the population of complacency with the authorities and pharmaceutical companies during the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, journalists suffered online and offline verbal attacks.


Even though Dominicans consider the role of the press to be positive, the main news outlets are owned by a single, very large private consortium, which is among the most powerful in the country and which brings together businessmen from the banking and construction sectors. These include Listín DiarioHoyEl NacionalEl CaribeEl Día (free), Diario Libre, and television channels such as TelesistemaTeleantillas and Coral.  


According to recent studies, the level of distrust in the American media is unprecedented. The disinformation affecting American society has created an atmosphere where citizens no longer know who to trust. Online harassment, particularly towards women and minorities, is also a serious issue for journalists and can impact their quality of life and safety. 

This all seems very apples and oranges. Why the discussion of the ownership of the DR media isn’t under Economic Context is anyone’s guess. That said, while I wouldn’t characterize any of this as a measure of “Press Freedom,” the writeups here at least portray the US as arguably more problematic than the other two.



While physical attacks against them are extremely rare, journalists have been exposed to a growing number of online threats by private individuals, the most severe cases being reported to the police and investigated. The media houses have deployed measures to better protect journalists, but in the context of lacking systematic psychological assistance, cyberbullying may have a self-censorship effect on journalists. 


In the Dominican Republic, journalists work in satisfactory, safe working conditions. However, there is widespread fear of being wiretapped by the government or by some large companies. One of the main scourges of the profession is self-censorship in regards to the interests of media owners. In addition, many journalists work in ministries and other public institutions, as well as in the private media, mainly to escape low salaries. Journalists who have received death threats have been given state protection.


There is a troubling pattern of harassment, intimidation and assault on journalists in the field. In September 2022, Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Jeff German was stabbed to death by a politician he was investigating. Dylan Lyons, a reporter for Spectrum News 13 in Orlando, Florida, was himself shot while covering a shooting in February 2023. When covering demonstrations, journalists are sometimes attacked and physically assaulted by demonstrators. Several reporters have also been arrested while covering such events.

Once again, the points of comparison are suspect. Two journalists have been killed in two years, one by a local politician and one while at a crime scene. That’s not a significant safety issue. Being at risk of assault and arrest while covering angry mobs, though, is. But the write-ups gives us no idea of whether that kind of thing happens in the 54 countries ranked ahead of the US.

All-in-all, this is just some weak tea and it’s bizarre that serious press outlets treat this index as a legitimate tool for comparison. Rather clearly, less developed countries are given considerably more benefit of the doubt than more advanced countries. Which I’m all for in a normative assessment but absolutely destroys the value of an index.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tony W says:

    I think we’re accustomed to seeing government violence and censorship be the factors that stifle a free press, but in the U.S. it’s increasingly becoming a problem of capitalist interests instead. My guess is that the rest of the world will follow suit in the coming decades.

    In my younger days, newsrooms had literal walls between the news department and the rest of the media company. I can remember programming PBX phone systems ~30 years ago in a way that the news department couldn’t even dial an extension internally outside their group.

    So the threat has changed, but the effect is the same.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Quite a coincidence. I was going to post on this story today, too, James. I didn’t have a problem with their ranking but I did with their indices.

    I agree with you that they’re comparing apples with oranges or, more aptly, cherries with watermelons. The countries in the list of those top-rated are all tiny ethnic states.

    They never seem to actually define their terms. What do they mean by “journalists”? What do they mean by “freedom”? I would suggest they are imposing their own societal expectations on the United States.

    Let’s consider Denmark, for example. Until the 1980s there was a single government television network in Denmark. Now (as far as I can tell) there are five. That’s actually quite a few for a country Denmark’s size. Viewership patterns are interesting. 40% of Danes watch the (formerly) state network, about 20% the next largest, 10% the next largest, and so on. That’s the classical distribution for a cartel.

    In the U. S. by comparison there are hundreds (if not thousands) of networks and none has anything approaching 40% viewership. In that context what does “consolidation” mean? BTW people still read newspapers in Denmark.

    They seem to have several basic criticisms of the U. S.: consolidation, not complaining enough about freedom of the press in places like Saudi Arabia, distrust of the press. My criticisms would be different: abandonment of journalistic ethics and too cozy a relationship between media outlets and the White House (which outlets depending on who occupies the White House) would top my list.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @Tony W: @Dave Schuler: I don’t have a problem with most of their critiques of the US media environment but rather the way they cram them into an index that’s clearly not a real index—the whole point of which is to use a consistent set of coding across cases. By their nature, indexes elide nuance for the sake of consistency. Here, they clearly have no standard set of criteria but are simply ranking as they please based on whatever standard they think a given country should be held to.

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    “There are 3 kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
    –Mark Twain.

  5. MarkedMan says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    In the U. S. by comparison there are hundreds (if not thousands) of networks

    I’m not sure where this coming from. The FCC limits corporations from owning stations that cover more than 39% of the market, and there are a number that hover just below that. Sinclair Media has over 150 stations. Scripps has more, reaching 78% of the market based on a legacy rule that treats VHF and UHF stations as different entities. I just checked with the person I know that works at Sinclair and he said the reason they don’t do the same thing is that they are pretty sure the FCC will come down on Scripps and will do so faster if others jump in that pool. He also said that almost all stations are owned by a few companies and they trade stations amongst themselves according to their various advertising marketing strategies, in order to stay under the 39%.

  6. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: It sounds like the classic case of trying to use a single number to summarize something that has many important but wildly different facets. “What is the best car?” “What is the best city to live in?” In this case, it would be interesting to know where the US stands in the percentage of truly independent media outlets and whether that is growing or shrinking. It would also be interesting to compare us in terms of government attempts to throttle the press. And how our courts deal with libel. And so on. Capturing all those disparate things with one number is silly.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: Sure. There’s no such thing as a “best car” because it depends on what you want it for. A pickup truck, a minivan, and a sports car are all great at some things and poor at others; which is “best” depends on your needs at any given moment and we tend to compromise based on our general lifestyle, budget, etc. Car and Driver will rank even classes of vehicles differently than Consumer Reports, as the former values fun-to-drive an the latter reliability and practicality.

    Here, even within their five categories, they’re clearly not applying remotely consistent metrics across countries. It’s just not a meaningful index even within a larger construct.

  8. The Lounsbury says:

    Well… as an operator in Cote d’Ivoire for decades including now, the idea that Real World there is more press freedom in CdI than USA is… risible. From that data point alone the index is rather dubious. Not observed from any hostility to RSF nor CdI, which is a very decent country although like all developing countries struggling with also multiple ethnic cohorts, it has significant challenges.
    The immediate take away from having real world Africa exposure is that the index is indeed making Apples to Carrots type comparisions with the most restrictive basis for developed countries and rather generous basis for developing.

    Probably internal peer group in say rough economic development terms would be more coherent internally.

    Of course any global index even where one has more objective data is difficult to do consistently – the example of the old World Bank Doing Business index comes to mind (the other aspect as in all indices and generally, the moment something becomes a general reference, the very existence of measurement begins to distort the results, undercutting the original metrics logic – one sees this in many fields although more easily quantifiable in economic fields).

  9. Mimai says:

    Folks might want to take a look at the methodology.

    From the questionnaire:

    For this purpose, press freedom is defined as the ability to identify, gather and disseminate news and information in accordance with journalistic methods and ethics, without unnecessary risk of:
    -bodily harm (including murder, violence, arrest, detention, enforced disappearance and abduction);
    -psychological or emotional distress that could result from intimidation, coercion, harassment, surveillance, doxing (publication of personal information with malicious intent), degrading or hateful speech, smears and other threats targeting journalists or their loved-ones;
    -professional harm (for example, the loss of one’s job, the confiscation of professional equipment, or the ransacking of installations).

    One thing, among many, that jumped out to me was that the expert panel was comprised of* seven members – two from Germany, two from France, one from the US, one from the UK, and one from South Africa.

    Not a lot of diversity for a global topic. This is important given the scoring:

    This score is calculated on the basis of two components:
    -a quantitative tally of abuses against media and journalists in connection with their work;
    -a qualitative analysis of the situation in each country or territory based on the responses of press freedom specialists (including journalists, researchers, academics and human rights defenders) to an RSF questionnaire available in 24 languages.

    This would be a good project for a graduate course in media studies, political science, etc. Try to reproduce the results of this 2024 index (previous ones too). Not in a gotcha sense, but in a learning sense.

    Irregardless,** it’s almost always useful to look closely at the methodology for such things — this holds for Cosmo surveys and for smaller*** important matters such as press freedom.

    * 😉
    ** sorry, not sorry
    *** I’m leaving, just let me grab my coat

  10. Slugger says:

    Why the surprise at Estonia’s ranking? I know very little about Estonia (it’s on the Baltic Sea and speak a Finnish like language), but I have not heard about their government banning newspapers or books. Can anyone point me to examples of Estonian news suppression? Are their school libraries allowed to have Vonnegut novels?

  11. Mister Bluster says:

    Israeli PM Netanyahu cabinet votes to end Al Jazeera’s operations amidst Gaza war
    Israel has decided to end Al Jazeera’s operations in the country amidst its ongoing war against Hamas.
    Following the cabinet meeting, Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi signed the directives formally prohibiting the Qatari news outlet.
    In a video that was uploaded on social media site X, Karhi declared, “Anyone who incites against the State of Israel… will no longer broadcast from Israel here, and his equipment will be confiscated.”
    Hindustan Times

  12. steve says:

    All of these indices, like the various Freedom ratings places give out, have to decide upon their metrics and how much weight to give them. Frankly, I doubt anyone here, including James, knows enough about Estonia or the DR to know if the ratings make sense for them, but we do know a lot about the US. We know that there has been a long, sustained, well financed campaign against the press in the US. Enough that when a candidate for the Senate beat up a reporter (disabled IIRC) he still won the election and got seated. Enough that at campaign rallies the press gets seated in a penalty box while the candidate makes threats towards them and its not only tolerated its cheered on. If you use the term press broadly books are being banned and taken out of libraries.

    So just based upon what I know, probably about as little as anyone else, it sounds like press consolidation is an issue in all 3 countries cited. That there are corruption issues. However, the actual attacks upon the press in the US seem unusual. It has rarely turned physical, but when it has it has sometimes been lauded. So you can quibble over whether or not the US should really 25 vs 55, but it’s clear that we are nowhere near being world leaders.


  13. Gustopher says:

    @steve: I was thinking along the same lines, but more mathy.

    The ranking has far greater precision (they have to end up with an ordered list) than accuracy (the metrics are fairly subjective and depend on weighting that basically comes down to vibes).

    These types of rankings end up being worse than putting letter grades on countries or really anything else that just sorts them into buckets. Did the US drop from a B to a B-minus? Examining what changed in the US over the past few ratings is going to be a lot more informative than comparing it to Estonia. And comparing the US to the B-plus countries as a category is also likely to be more informative.

    No one knows anything about Estonia, and everything we do know about the Dominican Republic is wrong.

  14. Jack says:

    An awful lot of (well intended) analysis about a rather amorphous and subjective topic.

    Let’s just say, I think James general thrust is correct. I think Schuler provided the definitive comment – journalism is gone, its a business of clicks, requiring seedy self interested alliances. And that leads to bias, not lack of freedom. I’m more worried about the government colluding/pressuring with Zuckerberg et al.


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