The Land of the Free Isn’t so Free for Journalists

The Land of the Free Isn’t so Free for Journalists

Armed conflict and government surveillance in the name of national security: Together they make up the world’s most serious threats to press freedoms, according to Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) annual examination of press freedoms around the world.

Some of the biggest offenders aren’t surprising: Syria, where dozens of journalists have been killed or gone missing; the Central African Republic, where journalists have been caught up in the country’s descent into staggering violence; and Mali, where in November two French reporters were abducted and killed.

But one of the report’s main targets isn’t a war-torn Middle Eastern or African country. It’s the United States, which dropped 13 places on the index, to 46 out of 180, putting it just behind Trinidad and Tobago, Papua New Guinea, and Romania. "This year, the ranking of some countries, including democracies, has been impacted by an overly broad and abusive interpretation of the concept of national security protection," Reporters Without Borders’ head of research, Lucie Morillon, said in a statement.

The report points to the conviction of WikiLeaks source Chelsea Manning and the continuing pursuit of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden as factors that have created a threatening environment for American reporters and sources. Reporters Without Borders also cites the Justice Department’s move to secretly obtain two months of phone records from the Associated Press in a search for information about a CIA leak of a foiled terror plot. It did so by serving a subpoena to its phone provider, Verizon, for which the Justice Department didn’t even need a warrant. The entire probe was done in accordance with the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986, and the AP reportedly didn’t know about any of it until three months after it happened.

"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," the report, which was released late Tuesday, said.

Reporters Without Borders cited AP flap as one instance with troubling implications for press freedom in the United States, a democratic country where communications are subject to increasingly sweeping electronic surveillance: Those seeking to lift a veil on classified government activity can’t reasonably expect the full privacy of their, or their sources’, communications.

"Prosecutors have sought phone records from reporters before, but the seizure of records from such a wide array of AP offices, including general AP switchboards numbers and an office-wide shared fax line, is unusual," the AP article on the seizure noted at the time.

Thanks to the Snowden revelations, the United States isn’t the only democracy to fall in this year’s index. The United Kingdom also suffered, falling three places to number 33. The report cited the government’s harassment of the Guardian newspaper and its journalists after they published numerous stories based on the Snowden document.

According to the report, Finland tops the charts in press freedom, followed by the Netherlands, Norway, and Luxembourg. On the other end of the spectrum, Eritrea comes in last at 180. Syria, Turkmenistan, and North Korea rank at 177, 178, and 179, respectively.

Of course, the explosion of armed conflict, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, has also taken its toll on the state of press freedom in those countries. "In an unstable environment, the media become strategic goals and targets for groups or individuals whose attempts to control news and information violate the guarantees enshrined in international law," the RSF report said.

Some of the biggest drops due to such conflict were in the Central African Republic (down a staggering 34 places to 109), which has been witnessing a steady descent into violence since March 2013, and Mali (down 22 to 122), where Islamist groups have been vying for control since 2012. In October, Reporters Without Borders condemned the threats directed at C.A.R. journalists by a newly formed police force, called the Extraordinary Committee for the Defense of Democratic Achievements (CEDAD). The police force, founded by a general in the Seleka rebel coalition that had ousted the previous government earlier in the year, developed a reputation for harassing members of the media and conducted  a "heavy-handed interrogation" of the editors of three Bangui-based dailies in October.

Syria came in four places from the bottom at 177, but its rank remained unchanged. The poor state of media freedom in the country, which has been wracked by protracted civil war since 2011, should perhaps come as no surprise. In a recent article for Foreign Policy, James Traub painted an especially bleak picture of reporting on the conflict there, where jihadi groups make explicit targets of reporters. Traub wrote of a post on a jihadi website that warned of "a type of spy who collects the news and gives it to their masters in detailed reports, which would hurt the jihadis." The post reminded readers of the need to capture "every journalist."

As of the article’s publication, there were at least 30 journalists in captivity in the country.