Asmaa Waguih/Reuters

Diminished freedoms: Jailing and killing the media

Press rights organizations decry growing violence, intimidation and surveillance targeting journalists

The government had wanted to compel Risen to testify, on threat of jailing for contempt if he refused to name his confidential source.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

The gruesome image of a journalist dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit kneeling helplessly before a black-clad captor has become the unfortunate embodiment of the gravest threat facing journalists today.

In its 2015 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) writes, “media freedom is in retreat on all five continents,” ranking Eritrea, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Syria and China at the bottom of its 180 country index.

Finland, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands and Sweden were given the highest ratings while the United States was ranked 49th, three spots lower than 2014 and a far cry from where it was at 20th in 2009, when President Barack Obama took office.

Press freedom also faces greater threats as new laws, government surveillance and increasingly sophisticated technology have become ubiquitous.

After the Obama administration abandoned a seven-year attempt to force New York Times reporter James Risen to reveal sources related to a CIA whistleblowing case, Risen lashed out at the administration on Twitter, calling it “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.”

The White House did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story

A joint Human Rights Watch-ACLU 2014 report, With Liberty to Monitor All, details how government surveillance programs and data collection of data are driving a wedge between reporters and their sources.

The report quotes one journalist who said, “I don’t want the government to force me to act like a spy. I’m not a spy; I’m a journalist.”

The result of increased surveillance on journalists covering certain beats —intelligence, terrorism, military, national security and Department of Justice issues — means slower, less fruitful, less robust sources, the report said.

Spying on the press

Maria McFarland, co-director of the US program of Human Rights Watch edited the report.

She said that journalists interviewed reported finding sources is becoming much more difficult "because you need to meet them in person and it’s much harder to follow up by email and establish a relationship."

McFarland described journalists going to extreme lengths to cover their tracks of communication that are perfectly legitimate, slowing work and making it less likely that important information would reach the public.

McFarland said the Obama administration's response to the report was “remarkably silent.”

Increased surveillance is also prompting more journalists to protect themselves with the latest privacy technology.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital civil liberties organization, has created an online surveillance self-defense how-to guide aimed at improving understanding of safer, more secure electronic communications.

Jillian York, EFF’s director of international freedom of expression, said encryption should be easy and secure for everyone, “not just ‘geeks.’”

“The more of us who use these tools, the harder it makes it for governments to conduct widespread, mass surveillance,” York said by email.

“It is important to remember that technology is not a panacea. It can be used both to get information out and to report … and it can also be used to surveil and track journalists,” said Courtney Radsch, advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Press freedom is further threatened when police crack down on journalists trying to cover incidents such as the protests that followed the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Researchers at the Freedom of the Press Foundation documented at least two dozen journalist arrests in Ferguson. In March 2015 Ryan Devereaux of The Intercept and three other journalists filed a federal lawsuit against the St. Louis County Police Department for false imprisonment and battery.

Targeting reporters

Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, jailed since July in Tehran, has been charged with several crimes, including espionage and "spreading propaganda" against the government. Iran is among the most prolific jailers of journalists in the world.
Zoeann Murphy / The Washington Post / Getty Images

In other countries, journalism can be a deadly job.

According to RSF’s Press Freedom Barometer, 99 journalists, media assistants and citizen journalists were killed in 2014. Syria, Palestine and Ukraine had the highest number of deaths.

2015 began with a bloody rampage that killed 12 in the Paris office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Later that month Japanese freelance journalist Kenji Goto was beheaded by ISIS in Syria.

Five months into 2015 more than 21 journalists have been killed worldwide.

Bloggers are also being targeted.

Earlier this year, in separate incidents, two bloggers in Bangladesh were hacked to death with machetes, allegedly for promoting secular ideas and criticizing Islam.

In Saudi Arabia blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to one thousand lashes and ten years in prison for advocating free speech.

Bloggers in Vietnam, Russia, Iran, Cuba, Singapore and dozens of other countries face threats of imprisonment with at least 175 jailed so far this year.

Speaking before the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club, AP president and CEO Gary Pruitt decried the increase in violence against journalists.

“It used to be that when media wore ‘PRESS’ emblazoned on their vests or ‘PRESS’ or ‘MEDIA’ was on the vehicle, it gave them a degree of protection ... That labeling now is more likely to make them a target,” Pruitt said, calling for an international legal mechanism to protect journalists from what he labeled “war crimes.”

'National security'

CPJ released its 2015 10 Most Censored Countries report in April, profiling the countries that use the threat of imprisonment, harassment, deception, surveillance and restricted access to the Internet and technology the most to suppress press freedom.

The report finds broadly defined laws described as “anti-terrorism,” “national security” or “state secrets” are increasingly being used to quash critical reporting and restrict media access.

CPJ’s multi-lingual report names Eritrea, North Korea and Saudi Arabia the three most censored countries of 2015.

“There are still places on Earth that are incredibly restricted, that are subject to such high degrees of censorship that the population has such limited access to information,” said CPJ's Radsche, adding that journalists in countries who “push against red lines” risk imprisonment.

“The people who are most likely to do that are going to be independent voices. Some are freelance, some are independent journalists working online, bloggers, that sort of thing,” Radsche said.

Tina Carr, director of the UK-based Rory Peck Trust, an organization dedicated to helping freelancers, said by email, “It’s the local freelance journalists reporting on conflict, corruption, human rights abuses and daily news events from within their own countries who remain the most vulnerable and often the least visible.”

She added, “Without the work of freelance journalists and their continuing determination to bear witness and uncover stories, our understanding of the world suffers.”

Shining a light on issues with press freedom is the reason UNESCO established World Press Freedom day — marked on May 3 — in 1993

This year, the UNESCO/Guillero Cano World Press Freedom Prize is being awarded to Mazen Darwish, a prominent Syrian journalist, human rights defender and director of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression.

Darwish, who was arrested with two colleagues in 2012 and charged with “promoting terrorist acts,” remains imprisoned today.

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