Freedom of the press in 2014

Today is World Press Freedom Day. So here is an appropriate post:

Freedom of the Press 2014
Freedom of the Press 2014

Thursday morning Freedom House released Freedom of the Press 2014, its annual report assessing media freedom around the world. The event featured a panel discussion with Karin Karlekar (Freedom of the Press project director), Scott Shane (New York Times national security reporter), and Sue Turton (Al Jazeera correspondent). Jim Sciutto, CNN chief national security correspondent, moderated.

Jim Sciutto asked panelists why they thought global press freedom has fallen in the past year. Karin Karlekar said that technology can be a source for good that enables a large audience to publish and access information. However in many countries, particularly ones with authoritarian governments, governments are increasingly cracking down. In some cases governments have used new tactics. In others, their methods are just an extension of the traditional media censorship methods they have used in the past. Governments are using tools that are supposed to empower people to track and follow them instead.

In China, some of the search engines and social media outlets employ more people to censor them than they do to produce them. They have a large, widespread mechanism for controlling online content. But even governments that don’t have that technological capability have found ways to clamp down online. They pursue people after the material has been produced. That has been the case in some countries like Ethiopia, where they just imprisoned 6 bloggers.

Sciutto asked Scott Shane to put into context leaks and prosecutions. How much of that is a threat to freedom of exchange in the US and how the White House is covered?

Scott commended Freedom House for being objective on the issue of press freedom. It saddened him to see the US downgraded from 21 points last year to 18 points in this year’s report. This has to do with the fact that in all of American history until 2009, there were three government officials prosecuted for leaking classified information to the press. We are now up to eight with Obama. This affects the willingness of government officials to talk even on unclassified but sensitive issues.  It affects the reporting that national security journalists do. The US is now ranked lower in press freedom than Estonia and the Czech Republic.

Sciutto: Has it reached a point where our leaders are not under the same level of oversight we expect them to be or that they were ten or twenty years ago?

Shane: In 1971 the New York Times Washington bureau chief Max Frankel wrote a memorandum about the Pentagon Papers arguing that covering secret, classified information is critical to informing the public. Some people take the attitude that it is secret; therefore, it should not be talked about. But that would make the White House and diplomacy impossible to write about.

As an example Shane mentioned how in 2011 the US deliberately hunted down and killed an American citizen in Yemen, the Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al Awlaki. There was a long legal opinion justifying the unilateral killing of an American citizen. That was classified opinion, so Shane made a Freedom of Information Act request for that document in 2010. Four years later, after filing a lawsuit, an appeals court ordered the government to release it. If he is lucky, Shane says he might receive a redacted form of this legal opinion 5 years later. When the president has the right to order the killing of an American citizen is a fairly fundamental question. Americans, Shane argues, have the right to know the legal basis.

Torton explained that she is being tried in absentia for aiding and abetting the Muslim Brotherhood. She left Cairo on November 6, which was a month and a half before the Muslim Brotherhood was accused of terrorism. Her Al Jazeera colleagues were arrested three days after the Muslim Brotherhood was proscribed a terrorist organization. They have been in jail for 126 days. Originally, she believed that the three judges were independent of the state and that they would see the situation for what it is. It is a politically motivated trial and she hoped they would throw the case out. As the sessions go on, however, and the judges refuse bail, she is frightened of the outcome.

Sciutto: Did the Arab Spring fail on the issue of freedom of information?

Turton: Each country has its own situation and different outcomes. Broadly speaking, the Arab Spring did not deliver what Western governments were probably hoping it was going to, which was perfectly packaged democracy. Access to information and the media is freer in some countries. Tunisia has had a sophisticated reaction to the Arab Spring. Libya is still a mess. At the beginning, optimism was enormous and the situation improved, but since then Libya has backtracked. But Egypt has failed. Talking to people on the ground, you get a sense that conditions are worse than under Mubarak.

Sciutto: How much of its moral high ground in terms of pushing for internet freedom has the US lost with the existence of the NSA and other interference on the internet?

Karlekar: I think it is affecting our moral high ground. Many governments use surveillance and other repressive tactics. The US used to be able to say that they should not be doing that. Now it is becoming much more difficult to say that. It is particularly ironic because the US government is trying to sell itself as an open, transparent government, but it is not.

Sciutto asked, are your Al Jazeera colleagues more scared now when they work?

Turton:  We have had to change how we operate. This is not just Al Jazeera; it is the media in general. In Egypt it is not just journalists being thrown in jail, but anyone with opposing views.

Sciutto: When you get into issues like coverage of leaks and you worry about your sources and your own legal situation, does that affect the overall quality of reporting?

Shane: I think it has chilled reporting on national security. What is interesting is the crackdown under Obama. There seems to be a random quality to it. All of the cases have involved electronic trails; emails or Internet chat logs. In the past the FBI would say that they would like to investigate this leak, but there are 1,000 people with security clearance. They had no good way of finding out who was responsible. Now, they can go into the government email system and find out exactly who has been talking to the reporter whose byline is on that story.

In fairness, technology is driving leakers as well. Two of the cases, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, are unique in American history. The volume of classified information out there is unprecedented. If our government is tracking leaks to the press in the US, it is obviously happening on an exponentially greater scale in countries like China or Russia.

Karlekar: The fear is that these issues will lead to self-censorship. What stories are not getting covered out of fear?

The entire Freedom House report can be viewed here.

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