Monday, March 03, 2008

Paint by numbers

The map on the left labels countries as free (green), partly free (peach), and not free (red) for the year 2006. The classification is from Freedom House, a primarily US-government-funded organization. Each country is scored on political liberty and civil liberty; the combined average of these scores determines how the country is classified. Cuba, for example, receives the poorest rating on both political and civil liberties, and is thus categorized as "not free".

The Wikipedia entry for democracy lists two other measures of democracy, one from the Polity IV project and the Democracy Index from The Economist. Each measure has its own scheme for measuring and weighting different characteristics felt to characterize democracies. Since the different measures assess many of the same things, it is not surprising that they show some agreement.

But democracy is not a simple thing and it is far from clear which characteristics matter and how best to weight them. For example, does a free press count more than an independent judiciary? If so, by how much? (And presumably this depends on how "free" and how "independent" they are.) What about non-traditional characteristics that may be important measures of democracy? For example, should voter turnout be factored in? What about incarceration rate? Or media concentration? Or universal health care?

Although there may be some value in overall measures of democracy, individual characteristics still need to be examined and put in context. When we do that, we may find that the global canvas no longer looks like a paint by numbers kit.

Update: 05Mar2008

No sooner had I put up this post than I saw this Adbusters press release relating to media concentration and democracy:

Adbusters Demands Canwest, the CBC and the CRTC Stop Blocking Citizen-Produced Advertising

On Monday, February 18, Adbusters lost its court battle against two of Canada's television networks that refused to sell airtime for its commercials. Adbusters claimed the CBC and Canwest Global had violated its right to free speech under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by refusing to sell air time, but the court decided that the Charter does not apply to private corporations.

"It's outrageous that the fast food, oil and automobile industries can buy as much TV time as they want in order to promote their agendas, but citizens are not allowed to talk back," said Adbusters Editor-in-Chief Kalle Lasn in response to the ruling. "Canadian democracy will not work properly until we the people have the same right to buy airtime as corporations do."

The rejected Adbusters ads pointed out that over 50 percent of the calories in a Big Mac come from fat, called for an end to the age of the automobile, and promoted Buy Nothing Day. While Court Justice William Ehrcke ruled that private broadcasters have the right to run whatever ads they like, Adbusters feels the case raises some troubling questions.

Firstly, why are Canwest and the CBC selling as much time as they possibly can to corporations, while fighting expensive legal actions to keep citizen-produced messages off the air? Why does the CBC call itself "Canada's Public Broadcaster" if they won't sell airtime to citizens?

Secondly, why is the CRTC not standing up for public access? When they grant licences to broadcasters, why is the right of Canadian citizens to access their own "public" airwaves not being guaranteed? Thirdly, why is our freedom of speech being suppressed? Why can corporations buy airtime while citizens cannot? Why doesn't the Canadian Charter apply to the most powerful social communications medium of our age - television?

"This case goes to the very heart of what our democracy is all about," says Lasn. "A healthy society allows its citizens to walk into their local TV stations and buy airtime under the same rules and conditions that corporations do. Adbusters has been given 30 days to challenge the ruling. This legal battle for media democracy will go on."

To talk to Kalle Lasn, or Ryan Dalziel, our lawyer, about the case please contact Lauren Bercovitch (


For more information about Adbusters and the global media democracy movement visit and

[1] Canadian Media facts:

Three corporations (CanWest, Quebecor and Torstar) control 70 per cent of the country's daily newspaper circulation.

Five major media acquisitions in Canada have been approved by CRTC in the past year: CHUM was purchased by CTVglobemedia for $1.4 billion, which then sold five CityTV stations to Rogers Communications for $375 million; CanWest purchased Alliance Atlantis for $2.3 billion; Astral Media bought Standard Broadcasting for $1.2 billion; and Quebecor bought the Osprey Media newspaper chain for $414 million.

[2] Facts about Media Democracy:

More than 30,000 people have signed the Media Carta, to voice their concerns about the way information is distributed in our society.

In the past year, a growing number of grassroots media activist groups have been formed in Canada to express a dissatisfaction with the continued consolidation of the country's media:

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Anonymous WestVan said...

So Fredom House has Tibet as free?

6:52 PM, March 25, 2008  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

No, Freedom House rates Tibet as "Not Free". In fact it gives Tibet the worst possible ratings in terms of both civil liberties and political rights. See the Wikipedia entry on Freedom House's Freedom in the World report.

10:28 PM, March 25, 2008  
Blogger Rambling Johnny said...

Canada does not really have a free speech. The charter of right is very weak in that area.

The constitutional provision that guarantees Freedom of expression in Canada is section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: ... (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication

Due to section 1 of the Charter, the so-called limitation clause, Canada's freedom of expression is not absolute and can be limited under certain situations. Section 1 of the Charter states:

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. (emphasis added)

This section is double edged. First it implies that a limitation on freedom of speech prescribed in law can be permitted if it can be justified as being a reasonable limit in a free and democratic society. Conversely, it implies that a restriction can be invalidated if it cannot be shown to be a reasonable limit in a free and democratic society. The former case has been used to uphold limits on legislation which are used to prevent hate speech and obscenity.[citation needed]

In the landmark Supreme Court of Canada case R. v. Zundel (1992), the court struck down a provision in the Criminal Code of Canada that prohibited publication of false information or news, stating that it violated section 2(b) of the Charter.

In April 29, 2004, Bill C-250 was passed which includes as hate speech propaganda against people based on their sexual orientation. It is now illegal to publicly incite hatred against people based on their colour, race, religion, ethnic origin, and sexual orientation. However, under section 319 on hate speech, a person cannot be convicted of hate speech "if the person can establish that the statements made are true."

Other laws that protect freedom of speech in Canada, and did so, to a limited extent, before the Charter was enacted in 1982, include the Implied Bill of Rights and the Canadian Bill of Rights."

7:38 PM, April 03, 2008  
Blogger L-girl said...

Any organization that rates the US as free isn't looking deeply enough. Rating the US as free calls the whole exercise into question.

6:07 PM, April 04, 2008  
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1:41 AM, November 26, 2008  

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