On May 1, Freedom House (FH) released its annual Freedom of the Press report. The tagline on the report’s cover, “Media Freedom Hits Decade Low,” perfectly summarizes the cumulative effect of decreased public access to information combined with an elevated assault on whistleblowers.
This is the 34th annual report by FH, whose mission is “to support democratic change, monitor freedom and advocate for democracy and human rights. According to the report, only 14 percent of the world’s population – one of every seven persons – enjoys a free press as defined by FH’s rating methodology. (The system assesses the ways in which pressure can be placed on the flow of independent information and the ability of various media outlets to operate freely.) While a few traditionally poorer-scoring countries in sub-Saharan and North Africa saw some improvement in press freedoms, countries representing virtually every political system saw their ratings decline, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Turkey, Kenya, Greece, and Thailand. Putting it in the report’s larger historical context, “The percentage of those enjoying a Free media in 2013 was at its lowest level since 1996 [when population data was incorporated]…Meanwhile, the share living in Not Free countries increased by one percentage point…”
What accounts for such dire news about the news? The report notes the paradox of such media freedom decline during a worldwide increase in news sources due to the explosion of social media and growth of online news outlets. But therein lies much of the explanation for the downward trend. In one realm, historically repressive governments that previously chose to ignore online media are moving into social media spaces in order to better control news content and crack down on dissent. In addition, governments with a relatively free press – most notably the U.S. – are increasingly restricting access to information, pursuing journalists and their sources for legal prosecution, and using electronic mass surveillance to target media outlets as well as ordinary citizens. As New York Timesnational security correspondent Scott Shane remarked during a panel discussion organized as part of the report’s release, the government’s ability to use technology to spy effectively on journalists and their sources has had a clear “chilling effect” on reporting.
These developments explain the most significant decline in a decade in the U.S.’ rating. The primary reason is Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing. The public service done by Snowden was also acknowledged by Shane, who said Snowden’s actions were the “right thing to do… a government agency that operated in almost complete secrecy is no longer able to do so.” It is significant, then, that the report also notes one ongoing challenge as “the lack of protection-of-sources legislation at the federal level.” In other words, whistleblower laws in the U.S. (and elsewhere) need to be strengthened, especially for those employed in the burgeoning national security sector.
Certainly, strengthening these laws is a step in the right direction, but a quasi-consensus on this issue led to more difficult questions for the panel, which included CNN Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto as the moderator and Al Jazeera correspondent Sue Turton (currently on trial in absentia in Egypt on charges of supporting terrorism) as a participant. For example, are certain journalists’ actions weakening the freedoms they purport to value? Specifically, the panel was asked to comment on attacks on investigative report Glenn Greenwald by other journalists, some of whom even called for his imprisonment for reporting the Snowden disclosures. After an awkward silence, Turton joked that this might be an expression of journalist “friendly fire” or “healthy competition.” Shane differentiated Greenwald’s “opinion” journalism from the “news” journalism that the Times practices. Sciutto then declared himself to be from the “old school” of journalism, which has rules that bestow credibility on the profession; he wondered aloud if it was acceptable for journalists to break these rules the way he intimated Greenwald’s reporting did.
Societies at large, not just the journalism profession, operate according to certain rules, whether official or unofficial, spoken or unspoken. The picture this report paints of press freedom worldwide – including the increase in physical and legal attacks on journalists, governments restricting public access to information, and the indiscriminate use of electronic surveillance – raises important questions about “the rules” that both journalists and citizens need to ask: Have the rules changed, if indeed they ever existed at all? Are they there to serve the public’s interest and a free press?
While attempts to justify press crackdowns often point to post-9/11 “national security” imperatives, it’s increasingly clear that such regimented information restriction and dragnet surveillance have less to do with keeping citizens safe and more to do with the financial and political safety of those who profit from these systems of control. In order to change this dynamic, journalists and media outlets will need to come to terms with business and political interests that directly or indirectly affect how and what they report if they aspire to a truly Free Press.
Alison Glick is an International Associate and Education Coordinator at GAP. In her role in the international program, she is GAP’s liaison to the Whistleblowing International Network (WIN), which GAP co-founded in 2013 along with whistleblowing organizations in four other countries. WIN was established to share civil society expertise and solidarity across national, legal, social and cultural boundaries to promote public interest whistleblowing. One of WIN’s founding principles is “The guarantee of freedom of information and expression depends ultimately on a free media.”