At Newseum, updating the overview of press freedom

By John Kelly
Thursday, April 29, 2010; B02

A couple of weeks ago, I stood with Bryan Schultz atop a teetering scissor lift high above the Newseum gift shop. His job: to take out Bangladesh, remove Bhutan, extract Namibia . . .

The countries are on a gigantic map that depicts press freedom around the world: How free are each nation's media to speak truth to power, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? A country is painted green (a free press), yellow (partly free) or red (not free), as determined by a watchdog organization called Freedom House.

"What's cool about the map is that people get it right away," Bryan, the museum's senior manager of exhibit services, said as he unscrewed Bangladesh. He was taking down a total of six countries so the foam puzzle pieces could be sanded and repainted in the Newseum's workshop. Freedom House tabulates data from a variety of sources annually. This year's ratings are being announced Thursday morning at the museum.

The map is stylized, the countries' borders sort of pixilated. It's a design born of the need to change parts of it every year as countries go up or down in the Freedom House ratings. Bangladesh and Bhutan were going from red to yellow.

"We worried a bit about Russia," Bryan said. "That's a lot of painting!"

He needn't have been concerned. The country is still safely in the red.

To look at the map is to be reminded how rare a thing it is to live in a country where journalists can do their jobs without fear of pressure, censorship or worse. Most of the world is painted yellow or red, with green pretty much confined to North America, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and a handful of countries in South America and Africa.

"Let's go for Madagascar," Bryan said. He used a cordless drill to unscrew the island nation. It looked like a Tetris piece. It was going from yellow to red.

I wondered what it must be like to see your country up there, painted an unflattering color.

"The real dictators aren't really worried, unfortunately," Karin Karlekar, managing editor of the Press Freedom Index, told me when I called her in New York this week. "We're not getting too many complaints from Turkmenistan or North Korea."

But some people do complain. It's embarrassing to be walking through the lovely Newseum -- heady with the tales of Edward R. Murrow, of Woodward and Bernstein -- only to look up at the map and see your country painted an unflattering hue. The Italians were particularly cheesed off a few years ago when their country was downgraded from green to yellow as a result of official interference in state- owned media.

"We got a ton of e-mail from random citizens, as well as from the government," Karin said. But they also heard from many Italians who said, "Bravo, you're right. Grazie for noticing."

Countries that are age-old rivals pay attention, too, Karin said. Armenia wants to beat Azerbaijan. Bulgaria wants to best Romania. Morocco wants to beat Algeria.

"Last year, the government spokesperson for Israel was criticizing us," Karin said. Because of press clampdowns in Gaza, the Middle Eastern country went from green to yellow. It's back in the green for 2010.

Bryan unscrewed Namibia and South Africa (both going from green to yellow) and laid them at his feet. "And there we are," he said before lowering the scissor lift.

He still has to think about his next challenge. Not far from the press freedom map is the Journalists Memorial. Glass panels are etched with the names of 2,007 journalists who died while reporting the news, starting with Elijah Parish Lovejoy, an abolitionist newspaper editor killed by an Illinois mob in 1837.

The memorial panels cover two stories. When the monument was designed, Newseum exhibit planners looked at the rate of journalist deaths during the previous 10 years to project the next 10 years. Empty space they thought would last a decade filled up in four years. Blank panels at the top of the display will have to be shifted down to make room for the new names.

"We're getting 60, 70, 80 journalists dying every year," Bryan said. "That adds up."

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