U.S. Drops 13 Places To 46th On 'World Press Freedom Index'

The United States experienced a major decline in press freedom over the past year according to the new annual study announced Feb. 11 by Reporters Without Borders. The world's largest press freedom group announced also sharp declines in the rank of the Central African Republic and Guatemala, and "marked improvements" for Ecuador, Bolivia and South Africa.

James Risen, Delphine Halgand Reporters Without Borders"2013 will go down in history as the worst year for press freedom in the modern history of the United States," said New York Times investigative reporter James Risen on a panel at the National Press Club announcing the results in Washington, DC.

Risen said government obstruction and prosecution of whistleblowers have chilled reporting on public affairs in Washington, thereby hurting the public and democratic values. The report cited Obama administration prosecutions of leakers as a major reason for the decline in the ranking of the United States from 32th to 46th.

Risen, a Pulitzer-winner and noted author who has fought the threat of jailing for years because he is determined to protect a reputed CIA source, was flanked by Reporters Without Borders United States Director Delphine Halgand and panelist Huong Nguyen in the photo at right by Noel St. John.

Nguyen said journalists are suffering a severe crackdown in her native Vietnam as she amplified the report's finding that Vietnam is currently jailing 34 bloggers. Vietnam's government has ordered in "Decree 72" that political news and comment are forbidden on social media and other unapproved electronic communications.

Tolga Tanis, Washington correspondent of the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, spoke also at the panel. He agreed with the report's findings that his native Turkey has become one of the world's leading jailers of journalists.

The report found that Syria ranks near the bottom of its rankings of 180 countries according to the seven criteria used. The report said 130 journalists and citizen "news providers" have been killed during Syria's three-year civil war.

During Q&A, I asked how the group defines "news providers." Halgand said her group reflects on that difficult question every day and makes its best judgment distinguish between even-handed information providers that her group counts as deserving special protection, and partisan advocates who do not qualify because they are aligned with combatants, in effect.

Update: RT International later invited me to comment, Andrew Kreig on RT TV exclusively about Sochi Olympics in an interview by Gayane Chichakyan based on my books and columns analyzing biased media coverage.

Regarding the United States, the Bush and Obama administrations have threatened Risen jail for protecting his reputed CIA source. The suspect is former analyst Jeffrey Sterling, whom authorities want to imprison on spy charges for talking with a reporter.

James Risen "State of War" coverRisen won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, and was a member of the New York Times reporting team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting.

Also, he wrote State of War, which was instrumental in breaking the story in the Times and elsewhere of massive surveillance of the American people in ways regarded as illegal at the time until Congress retroactively gave immunity to telecom companies.

Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama opposed retroactive immunity during his 2008 campaign. But he reversed supported the immunity in the summer of 2008 after he secured the nomination and no longer had to compete for Democratic votes. The Congressional vote has the effect of immunizing government officials and preventing the public from learning details of the program via litigation in the vast majority of instances.

Last July, an appeals court found that Risen must give evidence at the criminal trial of Sterling, who is being prosecuted for unauthorized leaking of state secrets. Risen and the New York Times requested Supreme Court review last month.

The report criticized countries that "interpret national security needs in an overly broad and abusive manner to the detriment of the right to inform and be informed." The report continued, "This trend constitutes a growing threat worldwide and is even endangering freedom of information in countries regarded as democracies."

Finland topped the index for the fourth year in a row, closely followed by Netherlands and Norway, like last year. At the bottom, the last three positions were again held by Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea, "three countries where freedom of information is non-existent." The report said, "these countries continue to be news and information black holes and living hells for the journalists who inhabit them."

The United States ranked just above Haiti in part because of Obama administration prosecutions under national security rationales. Halgand said three events shaped the reporting climate last year: Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, the trial of Army Pvt. Bradley/Chelsea Manning for giving classified documents to WikiLeaks, and the Justice Department’s probe of the Associated Press and other media organizations suspected of receiving leaked data.

Risen called the Obama team, which took office promising transparency, "the most aggressively anti-press administration in modern American history." Risen said the Obama administration has filed espionage cases against eight former federal workers, more than all previous administrations since the creation of the World War I-era Espionage Act. The previous administration, that of President George W. Bush, filed three such cases.

Even beyond spy cases and national security information, government employees have been seeing a climate of fear restrict their options for any type of complaint about government operations, Risen said. They know their communications are being watched and their loyalty assessed, he continued.

For reporters and the public, he said, democracy is being undermined when government information is cut off aside from approved news announcements and other officially sanctioned fare. The process is, he said, "rather Orwellian" and has led to widespread self-censorship in the United States media.

“The World Press Freedom Index is a reference tool that is based on seven criteria: the level of abuses, the extent of pluralism, media independence, the environment and self-censorship, the legislative framework, transparency and infrastructure,” said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire, in a statement accompanying the report, which has been published annually since 2002.

“It makes governments face their responsibilities by providing civil society with an objective measure, and provides international bodies with a good governance indicator to guide their decisions.”

Reporters Without Borders head of research Lucie Morillon said in the statement: “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. The index also reflects the negative impact of armed conflicts on freedom of information and its actors. The world’s most dangerous country for journalists, Syria, is ranked 177th out of 180 countries.”

Regarding the United States, the report said:

Countries that pride themselves on being democracies and respecting the rule of law have not set an example, far from it. 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.

This has been the case in the United States (46th), which fell 13 places, one of the most significant declines, amid increased efforts to track down whistleblowers and the sources of leaks. The trial and conviction of Private Bradley Manning and the pursuit of NSA analyst Edward Snowden were warnings to all those thinking of assisting in the disclosure of sensitive information that would clearly be in the public interest.

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.

James RisenThe index’s annual global indicator, which measures the overall level of violations of freedom of information in 180 countries year by year, is available in print for the first time. The index, together with regional and thematic analyses, is available on the free press group's website (rsf.org). The photo at right of the full panel was, like all of those of this event, by Noel St. John, a member of the Press Club.

Among other countries:

In Iran (173rd, +2), one of the Middle East’s key countries, there has so far been no implementation of the promises to improve freedom of information that the new president, Hassan Rouhani, made. Coverage of the Syrian tragedy in both the official Iranian press and on the blogosphere is closely watched by the regime, which cracks down on any criticism of its foreign policy.

Israel’s 17-place rise must be offset against its 20-place fall in the 2013 index as a result of Operation “Pillar of Defence” in November 2012, when two Palestinian journalists were killed, and the many raids it carried out against Palestinian media. Security needs continue to be used as an excuse to limit freedom of information. The Israeli media are able to be outspoken but media located in “Israeli territory” must comply with prior military censorship and gag orders. Investigative reporting involving national security is not welcome.

The European Union’s members are becoming more dispersed in the index, a development accelerated by the effects of the economic crisis and outbreaks of populism. Greece (99th, -14) and Hungary (64th, -7) are the most notable examples. In Greece, journalists are often the victims of physical attacks by members of Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party that entered parliament in June 2012. The government’s actions have also contributed to the fall.

Russia (148th) might have been lower in the index had it not been for the stubbornness and resistance shown by its civil society. But the authorities keep on intensifying the crackdown begun when Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012 and are exporting their model throughout the former Soviet Union. From Ukraine (127th, unchanged) and Azerbaijan (160th, -3) to Central Asia, Russia’s repressive legislation and communications surveillance methods are happily copied. Moscow also uses UN bodies and regional alliances such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in its efforts to undermine international standards on freedom of information.

Despite its regional aspirations, Turkey (154th) registered no improvement and continues to be one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists. The Gezi Park revolt highlighted the repressive methods used by the security forces, the increase in self-censorship and the dangers of the prime minister’s populist discourse. In view of the upcoming elections and the unpredictability of the peace process with the Kurdish separatists, 2014 is likely to be a decisive year for the future of civil liberties in Turkey.

China (175th, -1) failed to improve its ranking because, despite having an astonishing vital and increasingly militant blogosphere, it continues to censor and jail dissident bloggers and journalists. This new power is also using its economic might to extend its influence over the media in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, compromising their independence.

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