NEWS
Losing a point of reference: Press freedom in the US
18 Jun 2018
BY INDEX ON CENSORSHIP

By Nicole Ntim-Addae and Long Dang. With additional reporting by Shreya Parjan and Sandra Oseifri.

Rebecca Vincent, Dave Banisar, Jodie Ginsberg and Paddy Coulter (Photo: Nekane / @nekaneozamiz / www.nkproductions.org for Article 19)
Rebecca Vincent, Dave Banisar, Jodie Ginsberg and Paddy Coulter (Photo: Nekane / @nekaneozamiz / www.nkproductions.org for Article 19)

“What do we do next? We are losing our point of reference. The loss of the United States and the United Kingdom as democratic beacons for the rights of journalists and the freedom of information is a bad omen for the rest of the world.”

The question was raised by Javier Garza of Article 19, a British human rights organisation, at the discussion about the growing threats to press freedom in the United States that took place at the Free Word Centre on Thursday 14 June. The panel was held to explore the findings of the unprecedented mission to the USA undertaken by six press freedom groups — Index on Censorship, Article 19, Committee to Protect Journalists, IFEX, International Press Institute, and Reporters Without Borders—in January 2018. Representatives of the groups conducted interviews with journalists in St. Louis, Missouri, Houston, Texas, and Washington DC. Their findings were published in a mission report in May 2018.

Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship, stated the motivation behind the mission. “It is unusual for press freedom organisations to take a mission to the US”, she said. “According to the findings of the mission, violations of freedom of press and freedom of information may be closer to home.” The mission was carried out in recognition that discussions regarding press freedom are taken for granted in democracies in a way that they are not in authoritarian states.

At the same time, Trump’s hostile rhetoric directed against the US press is problematic for press worldwide. Rebecca Vincent, UK bureau director of Reporters Without Borders, noted that the Trumpian denunciation of the press as “fake news” and “enemies of the people” is gradually becoming a global phenomenon.

Vincent, Ginsberg, and Dave Banisar, senior legal counsel of Article 19 were moderated by Paddy Coulter, director of communications at Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative and member of the Article 19 board,  to review the mission.

According to the US Press Freedom Tracker, there were 34 arrests of journalists made by the authorities in 2017 alone. Along with that, there has been a noticeable uptick in border controls since 2017, with journalists being searched, forced to hand over their phones for inspection, and denied entry into the U.S. This kind of problematic border control renders it extremely difficult for journalists to travel for work. Moreover, the excessive phone screening not only poses a violation of journalists’ right to privacy, but also a risk to the safety of their sources.

“The US office [of RSF] now puts out a weekly violations report because there are so many of them” said Vincent. The UK is currently ranked 40th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom, according to the 2018 World Press Freedom Index. The US is faring worse, ranking at 45th. Since the beginning of 2018 alone, two journalists have been arrested and 12 have been attacked. The panelists noted that these problems did not start with the Trump administration. “Don’t get complacent. The beautiful [Clinton-Bush-Obama]  administration’s era when nothing went wrong hasn’t existed for a long time.” said Banisar.

Banisar explained how little protection there is for whistleblowers and their sources under the Espionage Act of 1917. It is important to note that the improper use of the act had started before the Trump administration: under the Obama administration, the act was used to prosecute more whistleblowers than ever before. Banisar highlighted the case of Reality Winner, the former NSA contractor who was incarcerated only a few days after she released information that the Russians had hacked the 2016 presidential election. Jen Robinson from Article 19, an Australian human rights lawyer and barrister with Doughty Street Chambers in London and advisor to Julian Assange WikiLeaks founder noted that Wikileaks’ 2010 investigation was unprecedented. Never before has the Espionage Act been used in a civil lawsuit as that would have set the stage for larger news agencies such as The New York Times.

How could we do better?

Ginsberg stressed the importance of  “reverse education” – that is, showing people how to navigate the negative environments. Border stops, according to her, are “a deeply concerning intrusion on the confidentiality of a reporter’s sources”. Accordingly, when journalists travel to the US to work, they should be aware of the situation and take steps to protect themselves and their sources.  In that vein, Index has provided a journalist tool kit drawing from the experience of journalists who have had to deal with problems first hand. It has also corroborated with the Missouri School of Journalism in Project Exile, which documents the experience of journalists forced to live in exile because of their work.

Vincent reaffirmed that the hostile rhetoric directed at journalists needs to stop, since “the line between hateful, hostile terms and violence against journalists is blurring”.  Bainsar emphasized that legal changes needs to be made to facilitate the free flow of information. He also stated that the US government needs to strive to improve its laws on source protection, protection for whistleblowers and statutory rights. Banisar calls for the Espionage Act of 1917 to be “ceremonially buried”.

But it is not all doom and gloom. Ginsberg, pointing to the demonstrations taking place around the world, commented that there is “still a huge appetite to assemble freely”. Banisar reported that the influx of cash flow into organisations such as the ACLU and HRW shows citizens are aware that press freedom violations are not problems they want to see coming back. He also reminded the audience that  the president could just serve four years, and there are rules and regulations that would keep him in check. Despite Trump’s adamant dismissal of climate change, 10,000 documents— obtained through the US’s landmark Freedom of Information Laws—from the Environmental Protect Agency were published in The New York Times this past week, demonstrating that there is still professionalism in the use of laws.

“There are still those with liberal values.” said Rebecca Vincent. “There is a younger generation of journalists who care about issues. It’s also about making people realize that this is not just the happening in the ‘world’. This is happening in our borders. We must stand up to our own standards.”

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