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Press freedom is declining in the US

Once a global beacon, the American press has suffered from scandal, unpopularity and government crackdowns

May 3, 2015 2:00AM ET

Today the world recognizes World Press Freedom Day. Instituted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), its purpose, according to the U.N., is to “celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom, to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.” The issues of quality reporting, media independence and the safety of journalists are as relevant today as ever, especially in the United States.

While American journalists have long been hailed as flag bearers of the profession — able to report, write and broadcast in mostly ideal circumstances — in the past two decades or more, we have seen a number of cases of fabrication by journalists who have shamed the profession at large and undermined public trust. The more journalism loses popular support, the greater the leverage the public and government officials have to restrict press freedom.

No longer can U.S.media ignore the issue of press freedom and point fingers at other nations for their poor records. Today journalists in the United States are under fire more than ever.

In 2015 the United States’ ranking in the Reporters Without Borders index of press freedom dropped from 20 in 2010 to 49 — four steps above Haiti. Placing higher than the United States: Namibia, Latvia, Suriname, El Salvador, Samoa and Burkina Faso.

The reason for the drop? Frequent attacks on journalists by the public and law enforcement during demonstrations and other high-profile events, threats against journalists who refuse to reveal their sources and the government’s failure to pass a federal shield law protecting journalists.

During the recent protests in Baltimore after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died after being injured while in police custody, more than five journalists were injured, and even more had their equipment destroyed or stolen, the Poynter Institute reported. In other countries there would be an outcry. Journalists and their advocates would be very vocal about finding the perpetrators of these crimes and prosecuting them. There is rarely such a cry in the United States.

Communities appear to have forgotten the role of the media in upholding democracy. They also need to be reminded that instances of bad journalism are the exception and not the rule.

An appreciation of the press starts from the top. But Barack Obama’s administration has prosecuted those who have leaked classified information to the press, secretly subpoenaed the phone records of Associated Press phone lines, listened into the phone and email records of Fox News reporter James Rosen and allegedly spied on Al Jazeera’s correspondence, according to a 2013 special report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on press freedom in the United States. New York Times investigative reporter James Risen was twice subpoenaed by federal prosecutors to testify in the government’s case against former Central Intelligence Agency employee James Alexander Sterling, who has been in contact with him. Risen refused to testify and wrote a long defense of his stance. His appeal was refused by the Supreme Court, and only a political decision by the Obama administration prevented his going to jail to protect his sources.

While ceremonies, speeches and trainings are held around the world in recognition of World Press Freedom Day, I hope that nonjournalists in the United States will raise their voices on social media about the importance of a free and open press. Let us all celebrate and cherish what the Founding Fathers held so dear that they devoted the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to prohibiting any law “abridging freedom of speech or of the press.” Bravo to them.

Alison Bethel McKenzie is a member of the board of directors of Al Jazeera America. A veteran journalist with three decades of media experience in the United States, Africa, the Caribbean and Europe, she most recently was executive director of the International Press Institute. Today she speaks globally on media issues and conducts trainings and workshops internationally.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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