Pervasive national security and surveillance programs have scaled back press freedom in established democracies like the United States, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in its World Press Freedom Index released Tuesday.
In an index that usually shifts incrementally from year to year, “for the first time, the trend is so clear,” Delphine Halgand, the group’s U.S. director, told Al Jazeera. She said the "chilling effect" on investigative journalists fearful of government prosecution is most palpable in the U.S.
“After 2013, we cannot deny any more that in the U.S., the whistle-blower is the enemy,” Halgand said. “The U.S. is going after confidential sources, compromising the only possibility to do a real journalist’s work."
The annual index assigns each of 180 countries a score based on factors ranging from pluralism of perspectives and independence of media from the authorities. In 2014, as has traditionally been the case, the Northern European nations of Finland, Netherlands and Norway topped the list while Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea floundered at the bottom.
But other longstanding stalwarts of media freedom took a dive in 2013, which the group attributed to a “disturbing” trend of prioritizing national security over democratic freedoms.
“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,” RSF said in a press release.
Investigative journalism, like that which exposed the United States’ far-reaching NSA data collection programs, has been the foremost casualty, the index said.
The U.S. dropped 13 places to 46th globally, due primarily to its pursuit of whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden, the ex-intelligence contractor who has been leaking information about the bulk collection of phone data and spying on allied foreign leaders by the NSA, as well as others involved in leaking documents.
NSA surveillance programs have weathered a firestorm of condemnation from rights groups concerned that the bulk collection violated First and Fourth Amendment rights and undermined the U.S.’s reputation abroad.
The whistle-blowers who have exposed these programs, including Snowden and U.S. Army soldier Chelsea Manning, who was convicted in July of leaking confidential documents, have been targeted by the government under the Espionage Act. The journalists who report on such confidential information are often pressured to reveal their sources, undermining what Halgand called "the lifeblood of investigative journalism."
New York Times reporter James Risen has been forced to testify against ex-CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, also charged under the Espionage Act. Freelance journalist Barrett Brown faces 105 years in prison for his involvement in leaking information from private intelligence company Stratfor.
“Virtually all info about national security is considered confidential, which means the crackdown is designed to restrict all but the approved version of things,” Halgand added.
In total, eight whistle-blowers have been charged under the Espionage Act (of 1917) since President Barack Obama took office in 2009 — compared to just four under all previous administrations.
The Snowden scandal also dropped the United Kingdom’s ranking three places to 33rd after London was accused of harassing The Guardian and arresting the partner of Guardian reporter Glen Greenwald, who leaked many of the Snowden documents.
The phenomenon is not limited to the West. In late 2013, Japan passed a wide-reaching national security bill that curbed journalists’ ability to investigate national issues like nuclear power and relations with the U.S., in an effort to shore up the notoriously leaky government. These issues are “now enshrined as taboos,” RSF said.
As a consequence, Japan fell five spots from last year and now stands at 59th.
The rumbling of armed conflict across the globe also undercut press freedoms in places like Central African Republic, which plummeted 43 places in the index amid the abject chaos of mass killing.
Syria, which featured one of the most closed media climates in the world even before war broke out in 2011, has seen 130 professional and citizen-journalists — 45 in 2013 — killed among the at least 130,000 total victims of its civil war. The war-torn nation ranks 177th of 180 countries in the index.
Perhaps most disappointing of all, however, is the report’s finding that the promises of the Arab Spring have failed to materialize for journalists across the Arab world.
Egypt, under military rule since the country’s first democratically elected president was deposed in July, has begun to crack down on journalists viewed as sympathetic to the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. What was once viewed as good news for Egyptian media, the abrupt ouster of Brotherhood leader Muhamed Morsi has birthed a new period of media oppression, including the detention of three Al Jazeera English journalists on charges of terrorism.
Bright lights in the 2014 index include South Africa, which RSF praised for opting not to adopt a law that would have curbed protections on investigative journalists.
Several countries in Latin America, including Panama, the Dominican Republic and Ecuador, also saw a marked decline in violence against journalists, censorship and judicial proceedings against reporters, the index said.
As for what those countries on the decline can do to prevent creeping national security priorities from infringing on media freedoms, the report recommends a simple fix: federal shield laws. Though many U.S. states have similar laws protecting journalists and their sources, there is no such safeguard on the federal level.
The White House has joined groups like the Society of Professional Journalists in pushing for Congress to pass the Free Flow of Information Act, which would protect reporters and their sources. A version of the act was passed, then filibustered in 2008, but a new version is pending in the Senate.
Some believe the act has loopholes, however — namely that it would likely tilt toward the government in national security cases.