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The Silenced Superpower: America’s Lagging Freedom of the Press

The 2014 Press Freedom Index by the France-based organization, Reporters Without Borders, once again brought an insightful analysis on which countries were most successful in providing a press environment that facilitates media independence – where journalists are to report in a free infrastructure, excluded of abuse from officials.  One of the most notable drops in this year’s index is the United States being ranked 46th out of the 180 countries- a drop of 13 slots. Indeed, it is a disappointment that the U.S under President Ob ama, who once promised to run the “most transparent” administration in the country’s history, is in retrogression.

The report states: “Countries that pride themselves on being democracies and respecting the rule of law have not set an example, far from it. 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.”

The plunge in the country’s rating on press freedoms and government openness can be explained by the numerous occasions of scandals and state failures throughout the past two years. In 2012, the United States fell even lower to 47th position, after tumbling 27 positions due to the series of arrests of high-profile journalists amidst the Occupy Wall Street protests. Yet, we must recognize that the root causes of the decline originated from years ago, when 9/11 spawned a major conflict between the imperatives of national security and the principles of the constitution’s First Amendment – enshrining every person’s right to inform and be informed. But the heritage of the 1787 constitution was shaken to its foundations during George W. Bush’s two terms as president by the way journalists were harassed and even imprisoned for refusing to reveal their sources or surrender their files to federal judicial officials.

However, there has been little advancement in practice under Barack Obama. Eight individuals have been charged under the Espionage Act since Obama became president, compared with only three during Bush’s two terms. While 2012 was in part the year of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, 2013 is remembered for the National Security Agency computer specialist Edward Snowden who exposed the mass surveillance methods developed by the US intelligence agencies. Private Chelsea/Bradley Manning, being the big WikiLeaks source, was charged with a 35-year jail term. Still, this doesn’t compare to the case of Barrett Brown, a young freelance journalist facing an extremely long sentence of 105 years in prison for posting information that hackers obtained from Statfor, a private intelligence company with close ties to the federal government.

Furthermore, 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. James Risen of The New York Times is now subject to a court order to testify against the former CIA whistleblower, Jeffrey Sterling.

Eugene Robinson, an opinion writer from The Washington Post, recently commented on the extent to which intelligence agencies such as the CIA are given unprecedented latitude to wage war against terrorists, and are dangerously out of control.

He states: “In our democracy, we have a right to know what our government is doing in our name. Agencies whose mandate is to operate in the shadows, such as the CIA and the NSA, obviously cannot announce or even acknowledge most of their actions. The only way we can be assured that the spooks are not running amok is through civilian oversight by our elected officials: the president and members of Congress.”

Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who heads the Senate intelligence committee, accused the CIA of improperly searching computers that intelligence committee staff members were using to review CIA documents about “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding – in plain language, torture. Files on those computers, she charges, have mysteriously disappeared.

“The CIA just went and searched the committee’s computers,” Feinstein said. “I have grave concerns that the CIA’s search may well have violated the separation-of-powers principle embodied in the United States Constitution.” She additionally believed that the agency might also have violated the Fourth Amendment, a federal law, and a presidential executive order.

Information remains hidden or destroyed, and whistle blowers continue to whistle away, as the freedom of the press in the United States continues to deteriorate. However, the blame is placed at the wrong target. Whistle blowers are not the enemy. Rather than properly communicating information that is in the public’s interest, the government is focused on punishing brave individuals who sacrificed their personal integrity in hopes to invoke a collective awareness and change amongst the populace. As the index states: “Investigative journalism, public interest and the confidentiality of journalists’ sources are all being sacrificed by legislators bent on ensuring that their country’s image is spared embarrassing revelations.”

In consequence, dozens of US journalists have been issued with subpoenas and pressured to reveal off-the-record sources they relied upon, which prompted some activists to call for a “media shield law” to protect the sources of journalists, and thousands of internet-involved organizations to organize protest against massive electronic surveillance. On February 11 of this year, an online movement called The Day We Fight Back included 6,000 websites that protested the FISA Improvements Act, which would strengthen the NSA surveillance legality. Additionally, nearly 250,000 people inside the country called or emailed their legislators.

The question remains whether there is hope in the near future for the United States to return to its supposedly intrinsic and fundamental democratic value for freedom of the press. The thought of the situation worsening beyond its present state is frightening. In order to deal with this issue, will the President prioritize this lapse in the latter half of his second term? One thing is for certain; until there is sufficient unilateral dissidence to promote sweeping changes throughout the country, the outlook for progression remains bleak.

Image License: Some rights reserved Official U.S. Navy Page

About Lara Gosselin

Concordia University Undergraduate student, Majoring in Political Science with a double Minor in Law & Society and Marketing. Lara has lived in Montreal for the past seven years, although remains tied to her hometown of Toronto. Her interest in U.S. politics derives from her numerous travels across the country, and second home in the southern-state of Florida. Lara joined the Political Bouillon in hopes to contribute to the active and opinionated student atmosphere of the city.

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