Crackdown on National Security Reporting Tanked US Press Freedom: Report

In annual index, Freedom House charges U.S. media freedom suffered steepest decline in a decade

U.S. press freedom has suffered its steepest decline in a decade due to the government's efforts to block reporting on the NSA spying scandal exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, obstruction of information, and the decimation of media diversity.

This is according to global index on media freedom (pdf) released Thursday by U.S.-based Freedom House.

Filed annually since the 1980s, the 2014 report finds that the U.S. suffered a "significant negative shift" from 2013: on a scale where countries are ranked from zero to 100, with lower numbers representing greater freedom, the U.S. dropped from 18 to 21 points.

"The U.S.'s score suffered its largest year-on-year decline in a decade," Jennifer Dunham, Senior Research Analyst at Freedom House, told Common Dreams. "In other years, the U.S. may have declined (or improved) one or two points, but never 3."

The report cites "attempts by the government to inhibit reporting on national security issues" as the number one reason for this plummet.

Factors include "government attempts to control official information flows, particularly concerning national security-related issues; the legal harassment of journalists with regard to protection of sources; and revelations of surveillance that included both the bulk collection of communications data by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the targeted wiretapping of media outlets."

Responding to the report, Betty Yu from the Center for Media Justice told Common Dreams, "In the U.S., the government has tried to suppress and downplay the severity of the Edward Snowden NSA revelations in the press.To many of us in the social justice movement, we know that surveillance and eavesdropping on communities of color and progressive movements is not new. But his revelations exposed that every person in the U.S. is being spied on. Fighting digital surveillance and the right to privacy is absolutely a freedom of the press issue. We need to be allowed to communicate and share information freely."

According to the report, "Ongoing challenges include the threat to media diversity stemming from poor economic conditions for the news industry. Researchers also slam the "limited willingness of high-level government officials to provide access and information to members of the press," including failure to respond to Freedom of Information Act Requests.

"Fighting digital surveillance and the right to privacy is absolutely a freedom of the press issue. We need to be allowed to communicate and share information freely." --Betty Yu, Center for Media Justice

Yu says that the current fight to save the open internet ties directly to issues of media diversity and freedom: "Based on this report, countries with the greatest improvement in freedom of the press are those with a growing diversity in media ownership and access to online media outlets. This sheds light on the importance of having a unfettered and open Internet protected by net neutrality."

She added, "Currently the Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is considering rules that would threaten our ability to communicate freely and essentially limit our free speech. The FCC is expected to vote on May 15 to formally start this process of considering Wheeler's proposal that would end net neutrality. Now is the time for the journalists, activists, the general public to raise their voices."

According to the report, which identifies a global decline in press freedom, the UK also dropped its ranking due to "negative developments stemmed from the government's response to the revelations of surveillance by the NSA and its British counterpart."

While Freedom House has been criticized for producing politically biased indexes that favor U.S. allies, its findings on the decline of U.S. press freedoms is backed by numerous other reports.

The 2014 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, released in February, found that the United States suffered a "major decline" due to the "hunt for leaks and whistleblowers."

Furthermore, a report released last October by the Committee to Protect Journalists charged that President Barack Obama has overseen an all-out war on journalism: attacking sources, conducting surveillance, creating a climate of fear, and prosecuting double the amount of cases for alleged leaks of classified information as all previous administrations combined.


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