The moment that former police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of the murder of George Floyd, the moment he was first put in handcuffs, was livestreamed from a Minneapolis courtroom. It was a victory not just for justice but for transparency and for press freedom — the kind of moment that makes this nation the envy of many around the world.
COVID-19 protocols and a small courtroom would have limited the number of press seats to two. But the judge — mindful of both the Constitution and the fact that the world was watching — made a judgment call in favor of openness and the need of the media to do its job. Unlike Massachusetts, where cameras have been allowed in court for decades, this was the first time cameras were permitted in a Minneapolis courtroom.
It was a too rare victory for press freedom in a year when a worldwide pandemic and a growing cadre of extremists who have journalists in their crosshairs have combined to threaten those who spend their lives and their careers bringing truth to their readers and viewers.
An independent, free press is the bedrock of a democracy, ensuring accountability and transparency and exposing injustice. But this year World Press Freedom Day is more aspirational — a moment to take stock, to celebrate small triumphs like Minneapolis, but also to note that around the world press freedom has taken a hit.
The 2021 World Press Freedom Index, released last week by Reporters Without Borders, found news coverage is “totally blocked or seriously impeded” in 73 nations and “constrained” in 59 others. That’s 132 countries of the 180 nations included in the survey.
“The pandemic has been used as grounds to block journalists’ access to information sources, and reporting in the field,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) secretary-general Christophe Deloire said in an online news conference, announcing this year’s index. “This closing of accesses contradicts with the basic principle of journalism.”
Even more worrisome, he added, “We cannot even trust that the access will be restored when the pandemic will be over.”
Autocrats around the globe have used the pandemic to solidify control of social media. China remains in its usual cellar-dweller location at 177 for its continuing internet censorship and ceaseless propaganda efforts. Elsewhere governments banned the publication of “unofficial” pandemic death tolls — Egypt (ranked 166), El Salvador (82), and Tanzania (124) were among them.
And Donald Trump may be gone from the White House, but false cries of “fake news” still echo among those autocrats who have the most to fear from honest reporting — the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, among them. In Hungary (92 on RSF’s list) publishing “fake news” now carries a prison term of up to five years. And, of course, “fake” is whatever Orban says is fake.
Perhaps the most troubling part is that the annual listing is no longer about the usual suspects — but about the fact that its color-coded map has fewer “white” spots — indicating a good climate for free press — than at any time since the organization adopted its method of analysis in 2013.
While much of Scandinavia occupies the top of the list, other European Union nations have slipped in rankings, like Greece, where a prominent journalist was killed execution-style in April, and Germany, where journalists are frequent targets of right-wing extremists.
And that, of course, brings us to the United States and its not-much-to-be-proud of 44th ranking. The US Press Freedom Tracker, run by a coalition of press freedom advocacy groups, has currently documented at least 29 journalists who have been arrested or detained in the course of their reporting this year alone. (Some 15 journalists were detained by police while covering protests in Brooklyn Center, Minn., following the shooting of 20-year-old Daunte Wright by a police officer during a traffic stop in April.) Last year more than 400 journalists were assaulted here — just for doing their jobs — more than 100 reported having their equipment intentionally damaged while on the job, and 137 were arrested or detained.
Compared to some dark corners of the world where journalists are thrown into a cell and never heard from again, this nation remains a bastion of freedom — where triumphs like the first-time gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Chauvin trial are still possible. But it is far from perfect.
Today there remain too many places where press credentials are not a guarantee of access but an invitation to abuse.
And still our colleagues around the world armed with notebooks and recorders and cameras do their job — its obvious hazards notwithstanding. We are indeed in this together — together pushing the envelope that is press freedom not for ourselves, but for all those who deserve access to information and to the unvarnished truths that make for better government.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.