By Mickey Huff
May 3rd marks the 30th anniversary of Press Freedom Day, inaugurated in 1993 by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) with support from the United Nations (UNESCO). RSF’s original 1991 report provided a “round-up of journalists killed throughout the world” and laid the groundwork for what eventually became the Press Freedom Index, which now ranks freedom of the press in some 180 countries. Each year since 1993, this index is published on Press Freedom Day.
For the last two years, the United States ranked 44th and 42nd respectively on the Press Freedom Index, and in 2020—the year of the George Floyd murder and major Black Lives Matter protests, not to mention a contentious presidential election—the US ranked 45th, and found itself listed as one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. Press Freedom Tracker, an initiative led by the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Committee to Protect Journalists, catalogued hundreds of attacks on reporters including physical assaults, arrests and detentions, along with the wanton destruction of their cameras, phones, and other equipment.
Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, noted that more than 80 percent of these violations of the First Amendment were committed by law enforcement officers. The overall and ongoing challenges journalists face here and around the globe are serious cause for alarm.
“Journalism is Not a Crime”
In a stunning display of hypocrisy, reported by Marjorie Cohn for Truthout, US President Joe Biden recently called out Russia for its arrest and detention on espionage charges of the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is stationed in Moscow. On April 29th, Biden attended the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where he denounced Russia’s actions and stated that “journalism is not a crime.” US Senate leaders echoed this sentiment in rare bipartisan fashion. Yet, Biden’s own administration, like Donald Trump’s before him, continues to doggedly pursue the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange under the Espionage Act. Assange has languished in a British prison the past four years—all for publishing factual documentation of US war crimes and misconduct that span nearly two decades.
While a handful of members of Congress have called for dropping charges against Assange, these calls lack the urgency or standing of those made on behalf Gershkovich. Outside the US, there have been upticks of support for Assange. Officials in Australia (Assange’s home country), the UK, Brazil, and Mexico, along with numerous free press organizations, have called for the US to drop all its charges against Assange, because his persecution has gone on far too long and for the wrong reasons.
Assange’s case is about far more than one individual, famed Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg explained in a recent conversation with journalist Kevin Gosztola, author of Guilty of Journalism: The Political Case Against Julian Assange. Ellsberg remarked that Assange’s extradition and prosecution would have major implications and chilling effects for press freedoms across the globe. Even major news outlets that have criticized Assange and WikiLeaks in the past have turned a corner during the last year, saying the US government’s pursuit of its case against Assange represents a grave threat to the First Amendment and press freedoms. From the New York Times and the Guardian to Le Monde and Der Spiegel, leading journalistic institutions are waking up to the need to defend all journalists and publishers, including Assange, even if they do not always agree with them.
Assaults on the Free Press are an Assault on Democracy
Project Censored associate director Andy Lee Roth recently wrote that journalism is the lifeblood of democracy, while noting that freedom of expression and freedom of information are “under concerted attack, in the United States and around the world.” Indeed, those freedoms are central to a functioning free press, one that keeps the public informed and civically engaged in meaningful ways. With ongoing attacks on journalists, and the whistleblowers who often serve as their key sources, we are witnessing a degradation of the free press that will only contribute further to civic decay.
Roth reminds readers of the historical significance of Article 19 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” It is high time we embrace these principles as we celebrate Press Freedom Day this year. It is imperative to push back against assaults on journalists by collectively calling for increased protections of reporters, publishers, and whistleblowers and an end to the culture of impunity for crimes against them. For democracy to survive, let alone flourish, we need to support a free and independent press in the spirit of Article 19.
Since 1976, Project Censored has championed these causes by decrying news censorship, amplifying the voices of diverse independent news outlets, and promoting critical media literacy education. Please join us in celebrating Press Freedom Day in hopes that over the next 30 years, press freedom organizations such as Reporters Without Borders, Project Censored, and others will no longer be needed as we, along with our free press, will no longer suffer such assaults and our societies can be more open, better informed, and truly thrive.