May 3, 2012 | By Trevor Timm

World Press Freedom Day: The U.S. Must Lead By Example

Today, governments and organizations around the globe are celebrating World Press Freedom Day, marked by the United Nations in Tunisia this year at a week-long conference. As usual, the U.S. will play a prominent role in the celebration, with the State Department sending its own delegation, and a U.S. representative delivering remarks at the opening ceremony.

But as the State Department touts its press freedom record in a press release today and encourages other countries to improve their own laws, it’s also important to critically look at the U.S.’s current approach to press freedom, in particular their statement that “the United States honors and supports media freedom at home and abroad.”

Journalists' sources in the U.S. have been the hardest hit in recent years. The current administration has used the Espionage Act to prosecute a record six whistleblowers for leaking information to the press—more than the rest of the previous administrations combined. Many of these whistleblowers have exposed constitutional violations such as the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program and the CIA’s waterboarding practices—issues clearly in the public interest—and now face years in prison. Meanwhile, the Justice Department has brought no prosecutions for the crimes underlying the exposed allegations.

In addition, a grand jury is reportedly still investigating WikiLeaks for violations of the Espionage Act for publishing classified information—a practice that has traditionally been protected by the First Amendment and which other newspapers engage in regularly. It would not only be completely unprecedented to prosecute a publisher under the archaic statute, but would also endanger many U.S. based publications like the New York Times. And as former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley has remarked, the U.S. government’s investigation into WikiLeaks undermines the United States’ ability to pressure countries like Russia and China to allow greater press freedom.

The U.S. also has repeatedly detained Oscar-nominated filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras at the border. Poitras has received critical acclaim for two films she has produced about the U.S.' post-9/11 wars, and is in the midst of making her third film on the subject. As Glenn Greenwald reported, “On several occasions, her reporter’s notebooks were seized and their contents copied, even as she objected that doing so would invade her journalist-source relationship,” clearly violating her rights as a reporter.

And while the State Department said today that they “advocate for freedom of expression and raise media freedom issues, including specific cases, in bilateral discussions with other governments and in multilateral bodies,” the administration has come under fire for lobbying the Yemeni government to keep a prominent Yemeni journalist Abd al-Ilah Haydar Al-Sha’i in jail. Al-Sha'i has aggressively covered civilian casualties resulting from US drone strikes in the region and has previously working for multiple US publications such as ABC News and the Washington Post.

On the local level in the U.S., many police departments have engaged in heavy-handed tactics against the press covering political protests, most notably Occupy Wall Street protests. Journalists have been harrassed, assaulted and over 70 have been arrested. An assortment of news organizations led by the New York Times have formally complained to the NYPD about such behavior, and a recent lawsuit alleges constitutional violations stemming from such incidents.

These arrests caused the U.S. to plummet 27 places in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom rankings to 47thoverall.

Traditionally, the United States has sought to stand as a shining example to emerging democracies in how it should treat its press, and by and large the U.S. still enjoys the best press freedoms in the world. But these recent incidents have put a stain on that reputation.  The U.S. needs to lead by example if it wants to see further progress, or we risk seeing the gains we’ve made over the past century disappear into the abyss of hypocrisy and lack of care.

As Justice Hugo Black once remarked, “Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.” The U.S. had demonstrated agreement with the statement applied abroad, but the only way to promote press freedom is to practice it at home as well.

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