The Obama administration’s pursuit of whistleblowers is taking a toll

The US dropped 13 Points in the Global Press Freedom Index

Last year was a rough one for freedom of the press in the US, and it shows. Every year, Reporters Without Borders calculates the relative press freedom of 180 countries, taking into consideration the mainstream-media journalists, citizen bloggers, and news producers who are arrested, imprisoned, abducted, forced into exile, attacked, threatened, censored, and killed in connection to their journalistic work. The countries are ranked from most to least free.

The US, as expected, has always been pretty high up: Last year it placed 32nd, after places like Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Canada. In this year’s index, though, the US dropped 13 places, to 46th. The US now places after Latvia, after El Salvador, after Papua New Guinea, and Romania. No offense to Latvia, but what’s going on?

A year of threats against whistleblowers, is what, and year of revelations of the scope of government surveillance against US citizens and the press alike. Journalists in the US certainly don’t face the kinds of dire threats to their lives and livelihoods that their colleagues do in an active war zone or under an oppressive dictatorship. But the drop in its score reflects the ways in which the US has failed to live up to the standards it has set for a free, democratic, independent press.

“Countries that pride themselves on being democracies and respecting the rule of law have not set an example, far from it,” reads the report accompanying the index, both released Wednesday. “Freedom of information is too often sacrificed to an overly broad and abusive interpretation of national security needs, marking a disturbing retreat from democratic practices. Investigative journalism often suffers as a result.” They’re talking about us.

Delphine Halgand, the US Director for Reporters Without Borders, says that 2013 will always be remembered for Chelsea Manning’s sentence of 35 years in prison, and for the pursuit of Edward Snowden and the journalists he is working with—or “accomplices,” as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper calls them. Halgand also emphasizes, as the press index report does, the general trend that the Obama administration has charged eight people under the Espionage Act—more than any other previous US administration combined.

The report highlights some of the other major cases that influenced the country’s drop in the rankings:

US journalists were stunned by the Department of Justice’s seizure of Associated Press phone records without warning in order to identify the source of a CIA leak. It served as a reminder of the urgent need for a “shield law” to protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources at the federal level. The revival of the legislative process is little consolation for James Risen of The New York Times, who is subject to a court order to testify against a former CIA employee accused of leaking classified information. And less still for Barrett Brown, a young freelance journalist facing 105 years in prison in connection with the posting of information that hackers obtained from Statfor, a private intelligence company with close ties to the federal government.

Halgand says she was not surprised when the results came in, because she’s been seeing this pattern of intimidation unfold all year. “It’s not coincidence, it’s really a clear strategy, and really harms a lot of investigative journalism—especially in a country where almost all information related to national security is classified and considered secret,” says Halgand. “It’s clear that this crackdown against whistleblowers is designed to protect the official, approved version of events.” She adds, “The phrase of the year is, ‘The whistleblower is the enemy.’”

Because of the index’s precise scoring system, countries do rise and fall in the ranking year to year, as journalists are jailed, freed, threatened, or protected. For instance, Halgand recalls, the United States’ score fell dramatically when New York Times reporter Judith Miller went to jail for protecting an anonymous source in 2005. (The index weighs imprisonment heavily in its score, and the longer a journalist is in jail, the more the country is penalized that year.)

After rising again after Miller’s imprisonment, the national score dropped again two years ago when several dozen reporters were arrested while covering the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York and elsewhere. Still, compared to those previous movements up and down the index, Halgand calls this year’s 13-place slip a “significant decline.”

The Free Press’s Josh Stearns and others who saw the index this week wondered why the UK’s score only fell three places, while the US’s score fell 13. The British government’s narrow-minded and absurd insistence that Guardian editors physically destroy the computer hard drives where copies of the Snowden files were saved, and its nine-hour detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner and assistant David Miranda at Heathrow Airport should certainly have an impact on the country’s overall standing, yes?

Halgand agrees that the same trends that we’re seeing here are being played out over there, but says that they are still happening on a slightly smaller level. “There are some concerning facts that we considered, but they had less impact than what happened in the US this past year,” she says.

“Both the US and UK authorities seem obsessed with hunting down whistleblowers instead of adopting legislation to rein in abusive surveillance practices that negate privacy, a democratic value cherished in both countries,” reads the report.

As disheartening as those patterns are in the US and the UK, there is hope that they are temporary, and that their scores can improve again. For instance, talks of federal and local shield bill legislation have picked up in recent months—there haven’t been any results to celebrate quite yet, but public awareness seems to be higher than it has been in the past, thanks to high-profile cases like Jana Winter’s, and the cases mentioned in the report.

As the positions of western democracies climb and fall up at the top of the index each year, Halgand says, she hopes that just as much international attention will be paid to the countries all the way at the bottom. Holding the very lowest places on the index this year are Iran, Vietnam, China, Somalia, Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea. They won’t make any headlines for dramatic movements up or down on the index, but in fact they deserve even more attention for the very fact of their inertia.

“Of course we are attracted by the rises and falls, but personally I think that it is also important to really highlight the tragic immobility of many of the countries at the bottom,” she says. “They don’t move [on the index], but in reality, they’re getting worse.”

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner Tags: , , , , ,