US Plummets in Global Press Freedom Rankings; Now Ranks behind Haiti
February 17, 2014
The Freedom of the Press Foundation & Conor Friedersdorf / The Atlantic & AntiWar.com
Every year, Reporters Without Borders ranks 180 countries in order of how well they safeguard press freedom. This year, the United States suffered a precipitous drop. The latest Press Freedom Index ranked the US 46th -- behind Haiti. Countries that scored better include Romania, South Africa, Ghana, Cyprus, and Botswana -- an embarrassing result for the country that conceived the First Amendment almost 240 years ago.
United States Plummets in Global Press Freedom Rankings
Josh Stearns / The Freedom of the Press Foundation
(February 12, 2014) -- According to a new report from Reporters Without Borders, there was a profound erosion of press freedom in the United States in 2013.
After a year of attacks on whistleblowers and digital journalists and revelations about mass surveillance, the United States plunged 13 spots in the group's global press freedom rankings to number 46.
Reporters Without Borders writes that the US faced "one of the most significant declines" in the world last year. Even the United Kingdom, whose sustained campaign to criminalize the Guardian's reporters and intimidate journalists has made headlines around the world, dropped only three spots, to number 33. The US fell as many spots as Paraguay, where "the pressure on journalists to censor themselves keeps on mounting."
Citing the Justice Department's aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers, including its secret seizure of Associated Press phone records, the authors write that "freedom of information is too often sacrificed to an overly broad and abusive interpretation of national security needs, marking a disturbing retreat from democratic practices. Investigative journalism often suffers as a result."
The threats facing newsgathering in the US are felt by both longstanding journalists like New York Times national security reporter James Risen, who may serve jail time for refusing to reveal a source, and non-traditional digital journalists like Barrett Brown.
Brown is a freelance journalist who has reported extensively on private intelligence firms and government contractors. He now faces more than 100 years in jail for linking to stolen documents as part of his reporting, even though he had no involvement in the actual theft.
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 pointed out here, these comments are only the most recent in a long line of attacks.
And yet, these threats -- while troubling -- pale in comparison to actions of the UK government over the last six months which raises questions about how they could so much higher than the US. Since publishing the first reports based on Edward Snowden's leaks the Guardian newspaper has been under immense pressure from British authorities, forcing the paper to move it's NSA reporting almost entirely to the US.
Under threat of legal action, Guardian journalists were forced to destroy computers containing the Snowden documents, using an anti-terrorism statute authorities detained Glenn Greenwald's partner and seized his electronics at Heathrow airport, and Parliament dragged Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger in to testify on his patriotism and love of country.
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 US climbed back up to 33rd place, but the last year has erased those gains landing us back at 46th. Oddly, the UK didn't see such a pendulum dropping only three spots this year.
We should be gravely concerned about press freedom in both the US and the UK regardless of what the numbers say. 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.
A version of this post originally appeared on the Free Press blog.
The United States Just Finished 46th in a Press-Freedom Contest
Conor Friedersdorf / The Atlantic
(February 13, 2014) --- Every year, Reporters Without Borders ranks 180 countries in order of how well they safeguard press freedom. This year, the United States suffered a precipitous drop. The latest Press Freedom Index ranked the US 46th.
That puts us around the same place as UC Santa Barbara in the US News and World Report college rankings. If we were on the PGA tour, we'd be Jonas Blixt of Sweden. If we were on American Idol we'd have been sent home already.
Countries that scored better include Romania, South Africa, Ghana, Cyprus, and Botswana. And 40 others. Put simply, it's an embarrassing result for the country that conceived the First Amendment almost 240 years ago. These rankings are always a bit arbitrary, but we're not anywhere close to the top tier these days. Why?
The report explains:
... 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.
Elsewhere it notes:
"US journalists were stunned by the Department of Justice's seizure of Associated Press phone records without warning in order to identify the source of a CIA leak. It served as a reminder of the urgent need for a 'shield law' to protect the confidentiality of journalists' sources at the federal level.
"The revival of the legislative process is little consolation for James Risen of The New York Times, who is subject to a court order to testify against a former CIA employee accused of leaking classified information. And less still for Barrett Brown, a young freelance journalist facing 105 years in prison in connection with the posting of information that hackers obtained from Statfor, a private intelligence company with close ties to the federal government."
Some Americans reading those critiques will object that terrorism is a real threat, and insist that national security and freedom of the press must be balanced.
Even if you agree in principle, consider the countries that rank highest on the 2014 Press Freedom Index. Here are the top 10:
Raise your hand if you're afraid to visit any of those countries.
Does anyone truly believe that the way they treat the press is imperiling their security, or that America couldn't prosper even if it was as friendly to the press as Finland?
Does Team Obama believe that the terrorists are going to win in Sweden, New Zealand, and Iceland because their balance is too press-freedom friendly?
Take it from Lee Greenwood: "I'm proud to be an American because at least I know I'm freer than 47th-ranked Haiti" -- just doesn't have the same exceptionalist ring to it.
The index methodology is here. Having looked it over, I still want the US to be on top next year. How about you?
Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.
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Journalism Is a Crime in America
The latest casualties in the government's war on journalism:
James Risen -- a New York Times journalist who exposed the Bush administration's covert actions abroad and is being threatened with jail by the Obama gang for not revealing sources.
Glenn Greenwald -- the independent journalist who gave us the Edward Snowden story and who now cannot return to America without fear of arrest.
Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, holed up in a friendly embassy: Fox News reporter James Rosen, who had his emails read and was tracked by authorities, along with an entire team of AP reporters. These are the victims of our government's assault on the First Amendment.
Years ago, we warned that it would come to this: that's why we've been fighting to preserve independent journalism since 1998 -- but we can't do it without your help -- because liberty matters.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.