Plummeting Press Freedom

Americans, of late, have become pretty much inured to our absence from the world’s ranking “good” lists. Our health care system, for example, is ranked the world’s 37th best by the World Health Organization.

And what about our press freedoms? Surely they—explicitly protected right there in that beautiful First Amendment—must be a shining example to the rest of the world. Surely our press freedom ratings aren’t down there with our health care rankings.

Whew, they’re not. We’re number 36, according to the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders. That’s actually up 12 spots from last year, but still behind countries such as Slovenia, Mali, Suriname, and Jamaica.

Reporters Without Borders’ comprehensive report examined everything from the number of journalists killed, imprisoned, or otherwise attacked to the level of protection afforded journalistic sources, and access to diverse news and views. Its authors write: “This situation is unacceptable for the country known for its First Amendment rights…. In times of important political decisions and economic crisis, the American people need more than ever to have access to accurate and diverse information in order to make sound decisions.”

One case raised by Reporters Without Borders is that of Chauncey Bailey, the editor of the Oakland Post who was murdered last year specifically because of his investigative reporting work. Bailey wrote frequently about corruption and gang violence in his city, and was examining the finances of a local bakery at the time he was executed by a masked gunman in broad daylight.

Reporters Without Borders’ report is also quite critical of the fact that, 14 months after the killing, we’ve seen no prosecutions. The federal government has refused to take up the case. “The justice system has to send a strong signal to those who want to silence the media, and show them that impunity will not prevail. Those responsible for the murder as well as those protecting them must be brought to justice. This is unlikely to happen unless this becomes a federal case.”

The report also takes account of the mass arrest of journalists during recent political conventions. One journalist, Jason Nicholas—who was working as an independent photographer for the New York Poststill remains in jail after being arrested at the Republican National Convention on September 1 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Several other journalists were arrested as well, including Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman and an Associated Press photographer.

Many of the other violations cited by Reporters Without Borders will be familiar to readers of this column. The group cited the United States’ failure to provide legal protection for journalists’ sources, saying that such protection is, “a cornerstone of investigative journalism [that] must be respected” or else “the ability of the media to find and provide information to the public as members of civil society is undermined.”

Recall our column from July, stressing the need for a federal shield law for journalists. As Justice William O. Douglas once wrote, “the press has a preferred position in our constitutional scheme, not to enable it to make money, not to set newsmen apart as a favored class but to bring to fulfillment the public’s right to know.” Offering legal confidentiality to journalistic sources is not unlike the confidentiality privilege already afforded doctors and therapists.

The report also specifically cited issues of news diversity and media ownership, all of which have deteriorated under the Bush administration. We’ve repeatedly written about FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s efforts to re-write regulations so as to allow one company to have cross-ownership rights in one market. This would allow, say, Rupert Murdoch to own the television, newspaper, and radio stations for one area.

Reporters Without Borders noted regret over President Bush’s revisions to the Freedom of Information Act, which occurred “after the administration had already circumvented citizens’ right to access federal documents, the most known example being the series of videos destroyed by the CIA which allegedly showed terrorist suspects being tortured.” For a refresher on this issue, see our column from March 14, 2008.

We surely would also be remiss to leave out the secret Pentagon propaganda program, where “analysts” were paid to deliver the administration’s line in a wide variety of news outlets. See our column from May 1 about the serious subversion of press freedom that took place when the government started secretly coordinating and funding favorable coverage. That is not something that can take place in a country that aspires to lead the world in freedom of the press—and it’s part of the reason we’re not leading now.

An issue of extreme importance is not just how the United States treats journalists in its own country, but how it treats journalists in the foreign areas it controls, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The group actually put out a separate ranking for countries’ actions outside its territory with regard to press freedom, and the United States places 119th. “This low position reflects the wrongful detention of dozens of journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years,” it reads, noting “the need for precise care and caution during wartime…. Accusations against local reporters suspected of being terrorists cannot be taken lightly. They are too often made because of ignorance of the rules of news gathering. It is imperative that U.S. forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan understand that journalists must be allowed to do their jobs.”

Again, back in December we observed that nine out of 10 journalists in Iraq say their local staff cannot carry anything that identifies them as cooperating with Western news organizations, including even notebooks. Fifty-seven percent of journalists say a local staff member has been murdered or kidnapped in the past year. And only 1 percent of journalists in Iraq say their staff has not received physical or verbal threats in the past year.

These issues are hardly trivial ones, with simple or easy fixes available. But as Craig Aaron and Josh Stearns of Free Press recently remarked, “America’s 36th-place finish is a clarion call for us to take a hard look at how we are meeting the information needs of our communities and upholding the values of the Constitution.” As with so many of the freedoms we’ve allowed to atrophy for the past eight years, the day for this is late indeed.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at http://www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking.

George Zornick is a freelance writer in New York.