Tuesday, November 28, 2006

U.S. Press Freedom Plummets

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

~ First Amendment to the United States Constitution

In an index by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RWB) illustrating which nations enjoy the greatest freedom of the press, the United States was placed way down the scale, with 52 countries rated better in affording journalists the free expression required to do their jobs.

The RWB index takes into account instances in which members of the press have been subject to threats, intimidation, censorship or physical reprisals, such as imprisonment, for reporting the news or editorializing on the events of the day.

Finland, Iceland, Ireland and the Netherlands were all rated at the very top, with no instances of media oppression, while the bottom of the index had North Korea as the absolute worst followed by Turkmenistan and Eritrea.

The U.S. is tied for 53rd, which seems odd for a country that had the mandate of a free press as one of its founding principles.

"The steady erosion of press freedom in the United States, France and Japan is extremely alarming,” wrote RWB in their analysis. "Relations between the media and the Bush administration sharply deteriorated after the president used the pretext of 'national security' to regard as suspicious any journalist who questioned his 'war on terrorism.'”

RWB began doing the index in 2002, when the United States was rated 17th worldwide for press freedom. By 2003, the U.S. had fallen to 31st and is now rated below scores of other countries in an area that's supposed to be a cornerstone of American democracy.

In a Huffington Post column Friday, Blake Fleetwood introduced us to this ranking system and described the case of Josh Wolf, a San Francisco writer and blogger, who has been in jail since July for refusing to hand over a videotape he made during protests at the G-8 economic summit. An officer had been injured and a police car damaged during the protests and officials want Wolf's tape as evidence.

Here's more from Fleetwood's column:
Earlier this week the Ninth Federal Appeals Court ruled that Wolf might be imprisoned until July 2007 when the Grand Jury expires. The video footage of the attack on a police car was aired by a cable TV station and then picked up by local affiliates of the national networks.

"He's not a criminal," said Lucie Morillion of Reporters Without Borders. "He was just protecting his sources, which is something many journalists have to do. The court decision is absurd."

"This young blogger does not represent any threat to national security, so keeping him in custody is a completely disproportionate step," said a representative of the worldwide press freedom organization -- a.k.a. Reporters Sans Frontiers -- after the November 16th ruling.

"The judges seem to want to teach a lesson to Wolf, a young man whose insolence exasperated them."

Wolf's only hope would be a successful appeal to the US Supreme Court, which does not look promising in this climate.

Other cases of US press intimidation include Sudanese cameraman Same al-Hajj, who works for the pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazzeera, who has been held without trial since June 2002 at the US military base at Guantanamo; and Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein, who has been held by US authorities in Iraq since April. The AP has been trying to secure his release for seven months.
You can read the rest of Fleetwood's piece here.

But this is both instructive and depressing as we see yet another effect of the Bush presidency and a do-nothing Republican Congress more inclined to roll over than do a sliver of oversight.

An editorial in Southern California's conservative Orange County Register, spelled it out aptly:

"The American press is far from perfect – in our opinion often too cozy with the permanent government at every level rather than being too critical – but if its freedom were severely restricted, freedom for other Americans would almost certainly deteriorate as well."