I was asked to speak at UNC-Chapel Hill this week about the role of free speech in a civil society. The group included five visiting physicians from Iraq. They could practice or teach medicine anywhere in the free world, but they have chosen to serve the people of their homeland. Here’s a condensed version of my remarks.
A great nation is not afraid of its own people. A great nation is not afraid of what people might say about it. Leaders of great nations tolerate and even encourage dissent; they don’t kill their critics or throw them in prison.
Americans believe in free speech and a free press because we believe individuals have rights, and we believe in ideas.
We believe that if everyone has a voice, we’ll have a robust debate, and eventually, the best ideas will rise to the top, whether that’s in politics, government, business or health care.
A free press shines a light on government and is the best way to prevent corruption. Corruption is the enemy of a merit-based society. Corruption leads to incompetence and inefficiency. Free speech and a free media foster creativity and innovation.
Unfortunately, most of the world’s governments don’t have enough self-confidence to allow the press in their country to be free. The nonprofit group Freedom House ranks countries each year on their media freedoms.
Media freedoms falling
Only 1 in 7 people in this world lives in a country with a free press. Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands top the list. The U.S. ranked 30th. North Korea is last at 197th.
Of the 197 countries, 62 are considered to have a free press. Far more people live in countries considered “Not Free” (44 percent) or “Partly Free” (42 percent).
Freedom House says media freedom has fallen to its lowest level in more than a decade. The decline was driven in part by major setbacks in the Middle East, especially in Egypt, Libya and Jordan.
Freedom House said: “We see declines in media freedom on a global level, driven by governments’ efforts to control the message and punish the messenger.
“In every region of the world last year, we found both governments and private actors attacking reporters, blocking their physical access to newsworthy events, censoring content and ordering politically motivated firings of journalists.”
Reporter deaths up
It might not seem like it but across the world, war deaths have declined steeply when compared to the Cold War era from 1950 to 1989.
But for journalists, this is a dangerous time. About 55 journalists a year were killed from 2000 to 2002. Since 2009, more than 100 journalists a year have died, according to the International Press Institute. Sometimes they die while reporting at the scene of combat. But often they are intentionally killed by government police or rebel soldiers.
Iraq has been deadly for journalists. In the last 12 years, nearly 1,100 journalists have been killed worldwide on the job; 207 of them – about 20 percent – died while reporting in Iraq.
The best way to make the world safer is to spread democracy. Democracies almost never go to war with each other.
At its heart, a free society reflects the confidence of those who run it. If you believe in your people and in your system of government, you know that free speech and a free media, no matter how painful, make the country better and stronger.
As I spoke, news emerged about the death of American journalist James Foley. He had been captured in Syria and was killed by members of the Islamic State extremist group.