This year’s theme is “Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law”.
Although this annual commemoration serves to highlight the struggle for press freedoms around the globe, the real work of securing these rights goes on daily in dozens of nations where reporters are threatened, jailed and killed.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 262 reporters were imprisoned in 2017. 62 have been killed in 2018 and 58 are missing globally.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the press is facing major challenges from an adversarial presidential administration.
While we were both guests on the Thom Hartmann program on April 27, US Congressman Ro Khanna (California 17th District) requested that I send his office information about potential “shield laws”, and other legislation designed to protect the rights of journalists.
I told Representative Khanna I would be glad to assist him in gathering information and providing consultation on this topic which is very important to me as a member of the press.
I am currently Executive Director of Democracy Watch News, a non-profit international news organization dedicated to covering pro-democracy movements around the world.
We are listed as one of the “Top 100 Digital Transformation Influencers” by Onalytica.
I’ve also written at Huffington Post, Daily Kos, Truthout, Capitol Hill Times, etc. I’m a regular contributor to several national media programs, including the Thom Hartmann program, and The Jeff Santos Show broadcasting from the Boston area.
Here’s some of the information I shared with Congressman Khanna:
Canada has recently adopted a law shielding journalists from prosecution for refusing to reveal their confidential sources. Currently, the United States does not have this kind of protection for reporters and their sources. In fact, it’s possible for a US journalist to suffer imprisonment for refusing to reveal information about their sources. Reporters can face subpoenas and contempt of court charges.
Reporter Sarah Olsen received a subpoena to testify at a military court during the court-martial proceedings launched by US Army prosecutors against Lieutenant Ehren Watada after he refused to lead his soldiers into the Iraq war in 2006. Journalist Dahr Jamail was placed on the prosecution witness list.
I had interviewed Lt. Watada for Free Speech Radio News on the Pacifica Radio Network, so I was also expecting to be issued a subpoena ordering me to appear before the court.
In that case, the journalists simply refused to respond to the subpoenas and eventually they were dropped by prosecutors, but the lack of shield laws in the USA is one example of limits to freedom of the press cited by Reporters Without Borders in their 2018 World Press Freedom Index report. Unlike Canada where reporters have some protections, there’s still no federal “shield law” guaranteeing reporters’ right to protect their sources in the USA.
Declining Press Freedom Ranking
The United States is ranked 45th in the latest World Press Freedom Index, falling from number 43 in 2017. Norway is currently ranked number one in press freedom, while Russia is way down the list at 148th and China is ranked 176 out of 180 countries. You can read the report at the Reporters Without Borders website: rsf.org/en
At the following link a few factors are revealed regarding why the US has dropped in the annual press freedom ranking. Canada and the United States are compared:
Reporters W/O Borders also cites anti-press rhetoric coming from the White House as one of the reasons for the continued decline of press freedom in the United States.
They also report that whistleblowers now face prosecution under the Espionage Act if they leak information of public interest to the press.
Journalists and their devices continue to be searched at the US border, and some foreign journalists are still being denied entry into the country.
Reporters Without Borders has joined with a dozen other organizations to monitor press freedom in the US at the US Press Freedom Tracker website. The project documented the arrests of 34 journalists in 2017.
In the majority of cases, police arrested the reporters while they were covering political protests.
I have also been arrested or threatened with arrest while covering protests as a journalist.
In 2011 I became the lead plaintiff in a federal class action civil rights lawsuit vs. the Washington State Patrol after I was arrested at the Washington State Capitol in Olympia while reporting on protests against state budget cuts.
US District Judge Robert Bryan sided with me and ruled that the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of the press had been violated.
Groups Dedicated To Protecting Freedom of the Press
“Open hostility, threats of leak prosecutions, and arrests have created a precarious situation for journalists,” said Alex Ellerbeck, senior research associate for the U.S. at the Committee to Protect Journalists (cpj.org) and chair of the steering committee for the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
“A full and honest accounting of challenges to press freedom in this country is sorely needed.”
It must be added here that although the US does not have a state-controlled media like Iran or China, it does suffer from a corporate monopoly of most media sources. Independent media has suffered from a serious lack of funding and support. The Corporation For Public Broadcasting’s budget has been slashed by conservative Republicans due to accusations of “liberal bias”.
In actuality, so-called “public broadcasting” has become dependent upon corporate underwriters and sponsors like the mega oil company Exxon/Mobile and food product giant Archer Daniels Midland.
Other groups dedicated to press freedom in the US include the Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press (rcfp.org), Free Press (freepress.net), Society For Professional Journalists (spj.org), Media Law Resource Center (medialaw.org), Freedom of the Press Foundation (freedom.press), Student Press Law Center (splc.org), etc.
In addition, many academic institutions have law or journalism centers working to secure the First Amendment right to a free press.
All of these groups, along with Democracy Watch News, can serve as effective and well-informed consultants on any proposed legislation regarding the protection of journalists and their confidential sources.
I maintain that it is the duty of all news organizations to promote democracy, transparency and accountability both in government and in media.
Above all, we must be courageous unyielding advocates for freedom of the press!
As Director for Democracy Watch News I’ve been in contact with European and international press freedom groups. Some of the most active groups in the EU include:
Reporters W/O Borders (rsf.org), MediaEU (ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/policies/media-freedom-and-pluralism), European Centre For Press & Media Freedom (ecpmf.eu), Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (cmpf.eui.eu), European Federation of Journalists (europeanjournalists.org), International Federation of Journalists (ifj.org), News Media Europe (newsmediaeurope.eu/freedom-of-press/), etc.
The European Parliament and other institutions in the EU have taken a lead on the issue of press freedom since 2017. Major conferences have been held recently in Brussels and other cities. I participated in the live streamed proceedings of this year’s European Union conference on investigative journalism and media independence.
These gatherings have been dedicated to the promotion of press freedom and the protection of journalists and their sources. One European initiative involves the idea of establishing “safe houses” where they can be sheltered and protected.
The European Commission states:
“Freedom of expression is one of the essential foundations of the European Union. But freedom of expression can only be exercised in a free and pluralistic media environment, including through independent media governance.
The European Union’s commitment to respect freedom and pluralism of the media, as well as the right to information and freedom of expression is enshrined in Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, similar to the provision of Article 10 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.”
By comparison, US media and political leaders have lagged far behind on this issue. The Federal Communications Commission continues to promote corporate media ownership consolidation while eliminating net neutrality.
I testified before the FCC about their own commissioned research which showed the negative effects of media monopolies on female and minority ownership, local news coverage, etc. However, the commissioners claimed not to know about the reports they themselves had commissioned!
Obviously, we need to do a lot better job of protecting our own members of the press in the United States of America!
A good start would be a national “Shield Law” modeled after the Canadian legislation.
Protection of whistleblowers should also be a main focus for any proposed legislation. Although some protections exist, there has been increased prosecution of govt whistleblowers since the Obama administration.
As a US journalist, I’m not proud of the steady decline in our ranking on the World Press Freedom Index. I have called upon all the reporters, editors, producers and publishers in this country to make covering issues of press freedom the main priority.
So far, with a few exceptions, that’s just not happening, and it’s a real shame…
After all, we are the nation that set the standard for freedom of the press with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution!