Thursday, February 20, 2014

The State of Press Freedom in America

I'm a writer.

It is fashionable these days to say that one is predisposed to be something — that such a person was born a certain way. Usually, that applies to one's sexuality; in my case, I think it means I was born to be a writer. It is what I do. It isn't something I can change.

That has meant different things at different times, I guess, but most of the time in my life it has involved journalism. Journalism was my major in college. I worked for newspapers. I have taught news writing and news editing, and currently I advise journalism students producing a college newspaper.

Perhaps that makes me overly sensitive to issues involving press freedom. I've always believed that a press that is free to report the news is the pillar of a democracy. Without a free press, nothing else means anything.

I am a strong believer in the Bill of Rights, but I am especially partial, I guess, to the First Amendment. I always believed it set the United States apart from the other countries in the world. Maybe I believed it meant the press would have more freedom here than anywhere else.

If that is what I believed — and I'm not really sure if I did or did not, to be candid — Reporters Without Borders disabuses me of that notion in its World Press Freedom Index 2014. In it, the United States is ranked 46th in the world in press freedom.

Maybe that doesn't seem so bad to you, but look at it this way. The United States ranked 32nd in press freedom a year ago. That's a decline of nearly 44%.

I don't think that is an encouraging trend — especially since places like South Africa, El Salvador, Romania, Papua New Guinea, Trinidad and Tobago, Botswana, Samoa, France, Latvia, Spain, Slovenia and Lithuania all pulled ahead of the United States in a single year.

Samoa was 16 places behind the U.S. last year; it is now six spots ahead. That is probably the most dramatic change, but the other shifts were dramatic, too. Trinidad and Tobago trailed the United States by 12 spots, now ahead by three. Papua New Guinea was nine spots behind the U.S. and now leads by two. Spain was behind by four spots, now leads by 11. Slovenia trailed the U.S. by three spots last year but now leads by 12. Lithuania trailed by a single spot and now leads by 14.

How is this possible?

I'm inclined to think the NSA surveillance scandal has had a lot to do with it. I also think the Justice Department's uncalled–for seizure of Associated Press phone records is to blame as well.

These were not "phony scandals," as the president blithely dismissed them. These were blatant assaults on freedom of the press in this country — and they should concern anyone who values freedom.

No comments: