Freedom of the press has long been a venerated right guaranteed under the First Amendment and protected by the government. This long held sentiment may no longer be as important to the U.S. government, at least according to Reporters Without Borders’ Worldwide Press Freedom Index, which has dropped the U.S. a total of 36 places in the past few years.
“The index measures the state of press freedom in the world. It reflects the degree of freedom journalists and news organizations enjoy in each country, and the efforts made by the state to respect and ensure respect for this freedom,” states the group’s website.
To gather the necessary data, Reporters Without Borders used a fifty-question survey that assessed every kind of violation relating to press freedom. Criteria listed on its website include “violation directly affecting journalists (such as murders, imprisonment, physical attacks and threats) and news media (censorship, confiscation of issues, searches and harassment).”
In the most recent edition alone, Worldwide Press Freedom Index 2006, the U.S. dropped nine places, tying with Botswana, Croatia and Tonga at 53. Finland, Iceland, Ireland and the Netherlands tied for first, while North Korea came in last at 168.
Although press freedom in the US is more protected than that in three quarters of the world, it is nevertheless the lowest out of highly developed countries, with the nearest being Japan at 51. This seems to put the US at odds with its unwavering message of freedom to the world.
What have precipitated the U.S.’s drop in rankings are not egregious violations such as threats and censorship but are more subtle changes in the legal situations facing the press. The main point of contention is whether the press has the right to withhold the identity of its sources.
Currently, a federal grand jury can incarcerate a journalist if he or she is found in contempt of the court by failing to comply with a subpoena to reveal his or her sources. Several members of the press have fallen victim, including Judith Miller of The New York Times and freelance journalist Josh Wolf.
While both journalists were held in contempt of the court and incarcerated, the scopes of their federal grand jury investigations were different. The investigation involving Miller concerned national security, a leak of classified intelligence, while the investigation involving Wolf concerned a tape of an anarchist demonstration.
The contrast reveals the logic behind the courts and the administration’s position on this issue — the protection of greater national interests and security over the rights of the press. This is a fine and certainly dangerous line to tread, for it sets a precedent for future infringements on press freedom.
Despite an almost guaranteed power reshuffle in Congress after the midterm elections in November, there is no doubt that the current trend of judicial activism will continue. The Worldwide Press Freedom Index 2006 only serves as a reminder.
As U.S. District Judge William Alsup said in his opinion on the Wolf verdict and quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Every person, from the president of the United States down to you and me, has to give information to the grand jury if the grand jury wants it.”
The questionnaire can be located at http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=19390.