NEW YORK -- Freedom of the press is in decline in the United States amid increased government secrecy and propaganda, say media veterans, analysts, and advocates.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom here that U.S. media are the freest in the world, the United States has suffered ''notable setbacks'' in press freedom and has slipped among countries tracked by the New York-based rights group Freedom House.
The organization, in an annual survey released in advance of Tuesday's commemoration of World Press Freedom Day, said media in Finland, Iceland, and Sweden faced the fewest fetters in 2004 while the most restrictions were slapped on journalists in North Korea, Burma (also known as Myanmar), Cuba, and Turkmenistan.
This is a government with absolutely no respect for the role of the press in a democracy.
University of Missouri School of Journalism
The United States was tied with Barbados, Canada, Dominica, Estonia, and Latvia at 24th place out of 194 countries covered in the survey.
Countries were scored based on three broad categories: the legal environment in which media operate, political influences on reporting and access to information, and economic pressures on content and the dissemination of news.
Freedom House said the U.S. score declined in part because of ''a number of legal cases in which prosecutors sought to compel journalists to reveal sources or turn over notes or other material they had gathered in the course of investigations.''
Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time Magazine, for example, face prison sentences for refusing to reveal their sources in a case in which the name of a Central Intelligence Agency covert agent was publicly revealed.
Neither Miller nor Cooper wrote articles about the case. Chicago Sun Times syndicated columnist, Robert Novak, named the agent in print. But the government is demanding that Miller and Cooper turn over any information they have. The journalists have lost their appeals in lower courts and will now take their case to the Supreme Court.
Doubts about official influence over media were fanned by revelations that the administration of President George W. Bush was paying journalists to espouse administration positions without identifying their government sponsors.
In one case, the administration -- seeking to build support among black families for its education policies -- paid a prominent African-American pundit, Armstrong Williams, 240,000 dollars to promote the ''No Child Left Behind'' law on his nationally syndicated television show and through his newspaper column, and to urge other black journalists to do the same.
Other nationally known journalists have admitted accepting thousands of dollars to endorse government programs.
''Paying journalists to write positive stories is part of a pattern of secrecy and manipulating the public that undermines our safety and our democracy,'' Steven Aftergood, who runs a project on government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, told IPS.
Government agencies also have produced video news releases, or pro-government propaganda made to resemble independent news, and distributed them to local television stations across the country. The stations frequently fail to identify the government as the source, thus encouraging viewers to believe they are watching genuine news, Freedom House said.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Congressional watchdog agency, has called the videos a form of ''covert propaganda.''
More than 20 federal agencies have used taxpayer funds to produce such television segments. Bush has defended the practice and has said he plans to continue it.
But Martin Kaplan of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication told IPS, ''The consequence of their injecting fake news into the media mainstream may be even worse than poisoning public debate on specific issues. It corrodes the ability of real journalism to do its job.''
Charles Davis, executive director of the University of Missouri School of Journalism's freedom of information center, added, ''Press freedom in the U.S. is experiencing some dark days as government at all levels seems content to turn its back on cherished freedoms in favor of administrative expediency, executive privilege and propaganda. Its embrace of secrecy to the point of caricature is but a symptom of the broader disease. This is a government with absolutely no respect for the role of the press in a democracy.''
US News and World Report magazine recently complained that the Bush administration has ''quietly but efficiently dropped a shroud of secrecy across many critical operations of the federal government -- cloaking its own affairs from scrutiny and removing from the public domain important information on health, safety, and environmental matters. The result has been a reversal of a decades-long trend of openness in government.''
White House spokespersons routinely counter such assertions by saying that the administration's policy toward the media is honest and transparent.
Even so, Jack Behrman, a former assistant secretary of commerce, accused the administration of hypocrisy.
''Our government avowedly promotes freedom abroad but has sought successfully to limit it in the U.S. through secrecy and manipulation of the media,'' Behrman told IPS.
Copyright © 2005 IPS-Inter Press Service