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Surveillance and Wars on Whistleblowers Leading to Less Press Freedom

America's score drops while Trump administration considers charges against WikiLeaks.

Julian AssangeDominic Lipinski/ZUMA Press/NewscomReporters Without Borders, an organization analyzing and defending a free media worldwide, just released its 2017 rankings list and has determined that media freedom is on the decline. It has calculated that in almost two-thirds of the 180 countries in the index, press freedom has dropped over the previous year.

While America is still extremely far from the kind of country that imprisons or kills people who engage in acts of journalism the government doesn't like, it dropped two ranks from 41 to 43. Yes, the election of President Donald Trump and his open display of contempt for critical media reporting of him plays a role. But the report is very clear that Trump is far from the originator of America's decline. He is taking advantage of a framework that has been developed by previous administrations, particularly President Barack Obama's pursuit of whistleblowers:

US press freedom, enshrined in the First Amendment to the 1787 constitution, has encountered several major obstacles over the past few years, most recently with the election of President Donald Trump. He has declared the press an "enemy of the American people" in a series of verbal attacks toward journalists, while attempting to block White House access to multiple media outlets in retaliation for critical reporting. Despite the bleak outlook under Trump, it bears repeating that his predecessor left behind a flimsy legacy for press freedom and access to information. Journalists continue to be arrested for covering various protests around the country, with several currently facing criminal charges. The Obama administration waged a war on whistleblowers who leaked information about its activities, leading to the prosecution of more leakers than any previous administration combined. To this day, American journalists are still not protected by a federal "shield law" guaranteeing their right to protect their sources and other confidential work-related information. And over the past few years, there has been an increase in prolonged searches of journalists and their devices at the US border, with some foreign journalists being prevented from any travel to the US after they covered sensitive topics such as Colombia's FARC or Kurdistan.

The report notes how populist movements that favor "strongmen" type candidates and leaders use attacks on the credibility of the media to grant them "anti-system" credibility with voters in the United States and Europe. And already existing strongmen and autocratic leaders in other less free countries have brought the hammer down even harder on the press.

But more specifically for Western countries, governments have used fears of terrorism and general "national security" goals as mechanisms to expand the use of surveillance against journalists themselves as yet another way of tracking down sources or individuals trying to anonymously pass along information:

In Germany (ranked 16th in the 2017 Index), the Bundestag passed a law in October 2016 extending the mass surveillance powers of the Federal Intelligence Agency (BND) without making any exception for journalists. The grounds cited for the new law was the need to combat terrorism, harmonize legislation, and bring it into compliance with the constitution. The BND can now legally spy on all non-German and non-EU nationals, including journalists and lawyers. It turns out that this controversial and much criticized law has helped to legalize existing practices. A few months after its adoption, Germans learned that the BND had already spied on at least 50 journalists and news organizations for indefinite periods since 1999.

It was also in late 2016 that the United Kingdom (down 2 places at 40th) adopted a new law extending the surveillance powers of the British intelligence agencies. Dubbed the "Snoopers' Charter," the Investigatory Powers Act put the UK in the unenviable position of having adopted "the most extreme surveillance legislation in UK history", with a law that lacks sufficient protection mechanisms for journalists and their sources. Even more alarming, in early 2017, the Law Commission put forward a proposal for a new 'Espionage Act' that would allow the courts to imprison journalists and others for up to 14 years for obtaining leaked information.

It is not terribly surprising, but nevertheless disappointing, that "advanced" countries push forward with spying on journalists and criminalizing those who reveal potentially controversial information about what their own governments are doing so successfully by bundling their oppression with the act of fighting terrorism.

And we're seeing signs it might get even worse. Under Obama, the Department of Justice considered attempting to charge WikiLeaks and Julian Assange with crimes for their role in leaking sensitive United States information but apparently were not able to figure out a way to do so that didn't threaten the larger concept of a free press.

Under Trump, officials seem much less concerned. CIA head Mike Pompeo seems to think the government can just declare that Assange and WikiLeaks don't get the protection of the First Amendment and there are reports that the Justice Department is considering charges against him. If Assange and other people from WikiLeaks are actually charged with crimes for releasing information that was leaked to him, we'll probably see America's ranking take an even bigger hit next year.

See the full list of rankings here. Norway ranks first and North Korea, unsurprisingly, ranks last.

Photo Credit: Dominic Lipinski/ZUMA Press/Newscom

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  • Kivlor||

    "The report notes how populist movements that favor "strongmen" type candidates and leaders use attacks on the credibility of the media to grant them "anti-system" credibility with voters in the United States and Europe. And already existing strongmen and autocratic leaders in other less free countries have brought the hammer down even harder on the press."

    This might be less effective for such "populist strongmen" if the media didn't demean and deride the populace. When you make the general population your enemy, you have to expect that they won't like you, and may just enjoy watching you burn.

    The Populist Strongman is a symptom. Not the problem. Not just now, but looking back through history.

  • Quixote||

    The media are, of course, thugs, and deserve to be burned. Everybody knows that some forms of speech cross the line and that sometimes a little suppression is needed, to make sure that certain inappropriate manifestations don't get out of hand. Surely no one here would dare to defend the "First Amendment dissent" of a single, isolated, judge in our nation's leading criminal "satire" case? See the documentation at:

    http://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    So Sharyl Attkisson wasn't crazy after all?

  • techgump||

    The Right to a free press and speech is not an American Right. It's a human right. American Gov't has gone full retard.

  • BYODB||

    Just because we consider something to be a human right, it doesn't necessarily follow that anywhere else in the world agrees. It would take a whole lot of war to make other countries believe what we believe over here. Even within the United States we've had wars over these issues with ourselves. Shooting wars. With bodies.

  • Meh.||

    The alt-text :)

  • BYODB||


    "It has calculated that in almost two-thirds of the 180 countries in the index, press freedom has dropped over the previous year."


    Uhh, just in the past year? Where the hell have these idiots been the last decade?

  • BYODB||

    Oh, and this:


    And we're seeing signs it might get even worse. Under Obama, the Department of Justice considered attempting to charge WikiLeaks and Julian Assange with crimes for their role in leaking sensitive United States information but apparently were not able to figure out a way to do so that didn't threaten the larger concept of a free press.

    WikiLeak's isn't an American outlet. There isn't anything the United States can do to them unless they can manage to somehow extradite Assange but they'll need to get in line on that one. As an example, what could the United States do to the Guardian if they decided they were traitors? Pretty much nothing is the answer, at least as far as I'm aware.

    That's probably the real reason the Obama administration did nothing; there was nothing for them to do. It makes them look better to say 'we didn't want to stifle free speech' instead of 'we couldn't find a way to stifle foreign speech'.

  • Ron||

    Well Hillary did suggest droning him, can't get much more anti freedom then that. It would rate at 100% anti freedom

  • Alcibiades||

    How the hell are these rankings calculated that gets those European countries at the top?
    There is no such thing as "freedom of speech" and the equivalent of the First Amendment anywhere in Europe, you can basically say only what the authorities allow you to say and can be jailed or fined for a tweet or facebook post that offends someone.

  • Kivlor||

    These rankings only calculate how they treat the press, not their population. The reason that the US is not at the top is A) because of that B) because we do go after journalists who don't turn over their sources in cases of classified disclosures and C) because there is a base anti-american bias in the organizations producing the ranking.

    No one comes close to us in terms of free speech. Others do beat us in "free press" because they won't lock up journos for not disclosing a source. But do they really have a "free press" if they have laws stating that saying or publishing "hate speech" is illegal?

  • TW||

    Agreed, it's kind of like how when the World Health Organization or some other group puts out a ranking of the health care systems of different countries, they put a heavy weight on things like whether you have "universal healthcare" versus quality. Which is how third world countries that have crappy healthcare (but it's "free" or "universal") are ranked higher than the United States.

  • Alcibiades||

    "But do they really have a "free press" if they have laws stating that saying or publishing "hate speech" is illegal?"

    That's exactly the point I was trying to make, all those countries at a fundamental and basic level are actively opposed to the very idea of freedom of expression and any evaluation that fails to take account of this is disingenuous, and of course your points "A" and "C" are dead on target.

  • BearOdinson||

    THIS!! There is no fucking way Ghana, South Africa, France and the UK should be ranked higher than the US. But as others have alluded to, Reporters Without Borders doesn't care about "free speech" or "free expression". They only care about the freedom of "professional" journalists.

  • The Last American Hero||

    To be fair, we did jail a guy over a Youtube video...

  • Alcibiades||

    Which had nothing to do with free speech/First Amendment and everything to do with him having violated his parole conditions.

    Also I believe the American part of youtube was requested by the Whitehouse to remove his video and youtube basically told the Whitehouse to go fuck yourself, just slightly more politely. So well done youtube for that.

  • Longtobefree||

    Maybe, just maybe, if "the press" would report facts, with named, verifiable sources, the public would be more inclined to actually give a damn what happens to them.

    Win, lose, or draw, I do not see any legal justification for creating special treatment for any individual based solely on their claim to be "the press". Back in the day, the press actually required a press, and was easy to determine; today, I can claim this comment makes me "the press".

  • Azathoth!!||

    Reporters Without Borders, a leftist organization advocating and demanding a leftist controlled media worldwide

    FTFY

    We need to start being honest about these things--and crushing them.

  • BearOdinson||

    From RWB website:

    ...the questionnaire is targeted at the media professionals, lawyers and sociologists who are asked to complete it. Scores are calculated on the basis of the responses of the experts selected by RSF combined with the data on abuses and violence against journalists during the period evaluated."

    There is no way this could be anything but an honest, non-biased look at freedom of speech or expression around the world.

    Gods damned fucktards!

  • jm15xy||

    The press hardly gives conservative politicians the benefit of the doubt. Is it fair to expect that conservative politicians reciprocate? They can't treat the press with kid gloves, because the press will eat them alive. They need not only a thick skin but also be able to counterattack.

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