While the United States government is not shooting and killing journalists, routinely withholding visas to foreign journalists or severely clamping down on online media, press freedom in the US has been declining, according to an annual report on global press freedom by Freedom House.
The report indicates that the “open media environment” in the US is not “immune to pressure on press freedom.” In the past year, “one of the world’s largest democracies” suffered the “most significant decline of the past decade” in press freedom due to “government government attempts to control official information flows, particularly concerning national security-related issues.”
Freedom House also cites the “legal harassment of journalists with regard to protection of sources” and “revelations of surveillance that included both the bulk collection of communications data by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the targeted wiretapping of media outlets” as factors.
“The limited willingness of high-level government officials to provide access and information to members of the press, already noted in 2012, remained a concern and additional methods of restricting the flow of information became apparent during the year,” Freedom House reports. “For example, there was an increase in the number of Freedom of Information Act requests that were either denied or censored on national security grounds.”
Indeed, the Associated Press found, when conducting its annual review, that the “government more than ever censored materials it turned over or fully denied access to them, in 244,675 cases or 36 percent of all requests. On 196,034 other occasions, the government said it couldn’t find records, a person refused to pay for copies or the government determined the request to be unreasonable or improper.” The media organization concluded the “government’s efforts to be more open about its activities last year were their worst since President Barack Obama took office.”
Additionally, Freedom House states, “Journalists who endeavored to cover national security issues faced continued efforts by the federal judiciary to compel them to testify or to hand over materials that would reveal their sources in a number of cases—the James Risen case being the most prominent ongoing dispute.”
The Obama administration insists that Risen, a New York Times reporter, must share details on his confidential sources in a leak prosecution. What he has endured is one of the worst examples of what reporters are talking about when they claim they are suffering from a “chilling effect.” And the administration refuses to let the Supreme Court hear his challenge to their subpoena to have him testify or be held in contempt of court and thrown in jail.
Furthermore, according to the Freedom House report, “The practices disclosed by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, regarding mass surveillance and the storage of metadata and digital content by the NSA, coupled with the targeted surveillance of the phones of dozens of Associated Press journalists, raised questions regarding the ability of journalists to protect their sources and cast a pall over free speech protections in the United States.”
It is worth noting the United Kingdom suffered a similar decline as a result of its response to the disclosures from Snowden. Freedom House mentions multiple “negative developments” that occurred including the use of the “Terrorism Act to detain the partner of investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald” and destroying the hard drives of the Guardian newspaper and threatening the media organization with further legal action.
The findings closely resemble the findings of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) found in their report on the Obama administration and the press, which was released on October 10, 2013. The report focused on how the Obama administration has ensured the smallest amount of information about what the administration is really doing winds up in the hands of reporters. It examined the effect of zealous efforts to prosecute leakers on freedom of the press, and it also detailed the concerns of reporters who are afraid their confidential communications are being swept up in unprecedented dragnet government surveillance.
This report from Freedom House also suggests that much of the news industry still suffers from “poor economic conditions,” which contributes to the lack of diversity in media. In addition to the lack of legislation at the federal level to help journalists protect their sources, this all contributes to a diminishing level of press freedom in the country.
Freedom House’s report came out on the same day that POLITICO published the results of a survey of White House correspondents. Asked how they react when they hear President Obama claim his administration is the “most transparent administration in history,” Ann Compton of ABC News said her response is “to groan.”
“Depends on what your definition of ‘transparent’ is. This [White House] means it is putting its own version of pictures, video and readouts on its own website,” Compton added. Keith Koffler of White House Dossier said he thinks, “The history of which country?”
Forty-two percent agreed with New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson that the Obama administration is the “most secretive White House that I have ever been involved in covering.”
Asked if George W. Bush’s White House or Barack Obama’s White House had been “more forthcoming with information for reporters,” forty-one percent said Bush had been more forthcoming. Five percent considered Obama more forthcoming. Thirteen percent thought it was about the same, but, remarkably, forty-one percent were not sure, which means the majority of reporters in the White House press corps think Obama is worse or just as bad as Bush.
About fifty-two percent strongly believe that there has been “no chilling effect” on their reporting as a result of a record number of leak prosecutions under the Obama administration.
Of course, reporters who are White House correspondents are not typically investigative journalists like Risen, Julia Angwin, James Bamford, Jane Mayer or Jeremy Scahill. They are not the kind of journalists who attend White House daily briefings and wait for some official to give them an answer to a question that they know will be a denial, deliberately misleading or a statement indicating they should contact another agency or department. One would not expect them to experience much of a “chilling effect” as a result of their willingness to reprint whatever reply they manage to get, whether it is acceptable to them or not.
White House correspondents probably won’t be all that impacted by Director of National Intelligence’s James Clapper’s new gag order instructing intelligence employees not to talk to the press. Investigative journalists are the ones who this policy intended to clamp down on leaks affects because it makes it even more difficult to form a relationship and maintain that relationship with a source.
The press can be grateful that no one’s life is in danger when they do their job. But that’s why journalism in the United States should be even more aggressive and why there should be more vigorous efforts on the part of media organizations to show solidarity with journalists around the world whose lives are most endangered when they try to do their work, whether they be in Bahrain, Central African Republic, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey or Ukraine.
There also should probably be a recognition that what reporters accept and cope with in their daily work will be difficult for US journalists to condemn when other countries engage in the same interference if there is no protest. The US cannot be a leader in setting the standard for world press freedom if freedom is in decline.