It may be the 'country of the First Amendment,' but the United States once again received an abysmal ranking from Reporters Without Borders, an international press monitoring and journalism advocacy group, in its annual review of how well nations protect the rights of individual journalists and overall press freedoms.
According to the 2014 World Press Freedom Index, the U.S. rank fell from 32nd overall in 2013 to 46th this year, a drop of 13 places which the group said was was a reflection of the detrimental effect on journalism caused by the Obama administration's "hunt for leaks and whistleblowers"—which was highlighted by the fallout over NSA disclosures made possible by Edward Snowden.
Attacks on journalists and individuals working to inform the public of government misdeeds, said the group's report, has chilled dissent and journalism by issuing a de facto "warning to those thinking of satisfying a public interest need for information about the imperial prerogatives assumed by the world’s leading power. "
From the report:
In the United States, 9/11 spawned a major conflict between the imperatives of national security and the principles of the constitution’s First Amendment. This amendment enshrines every person’s right to inform and be informed. But the heritage of the 1776 constitution was shaken to its foundations during George W. Bush’s two terms as president by the way journalists were harassed and even imprisoned for refusing to reveal their sources or surrender their files to federal judicial officials.
There has been little improvement in practice under Barack Obama. Rather than pursuing journalists, the emphasis has been on going after their sources, but often using the journalist to identify them. No fewer that eight individuals have been charged under the Espionage Act since Obama became president, compared with three during Bush’s two terms. While 2012 was in part the year of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, 2013 will be remember for the National Security Agency computer specialist Edward Snowden, who exposed the mass surveillance methods developed by the US intelligence agencies.
The whistleblower is the enemy. Hence the 35-year jail term imposed on Private Chelsea/Bradley Manning for being the big WikiLeaks source, an extremely long sentence but nonetheless small in comparison with the 105-year sentence requested for freelance journalist Barrett Brown in a hacking case. Amid an all-out hunt for leaks and sources, 2013 will also be the year of the Associated Press scandal, which came to light when the Department of Justice acknowledged that it had seized the news agency’s phone records.
Reflecting on the new rankings, Josh Stearns, director of press freedoms for the media reform group Free Press, said this:
The United States’ new press freedom ranking comes on the heels of a new and dangerous campaign against Glenn Greenwald and other journalists who have reported on the documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
In recent weeks, high-ranking members of the intelligence community and members of Congress have called NSA journalists “accomplices” to Snowden’s leaks, and accused them of trafficking in stolen goods. And as Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation points out, these comments are only the most recent in a long line of attacks.
In 2012, after a series of high-profile journalist arrests at Occupy protests, the United States dropped 27 places in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, landing in 47th place. The following year saw some progress as the U.S. climbed back up to 33rd place, but the last year has erased those gains.
The Reporters Without Borders study makes it clear that the struggles for freedom of expression and freedom of the press are global in scope, and deeply connected across borders. “Countries that pride themselves on being democracies and respecting the rule of law have not set an example,” the authors write.
Our press freedom ranking is important not just as a measure of the democratic health of our press, but also because hostility toward the press at home can legitimize threats to journalists abroad. We have to work in our communities and in Washington to fight for policies that protect all acts of journalism.