Reporters Without Borders Finds Significant “Barriers to Press Freedom” in the United States

Threats to the integrity of the press jeopardize not only the right to know but all other human rights and democracy, too.

by Kate Horgan

 By Mischa Geracoulis

Since 1993, the United Nations General Assembly has commemorated the third of May as World Press Freedom Day, reminding governments around the world that press freedom is a human right. It’s also when Reporters Without Borders (RSF) releases its annual World Press Freedom Index.

Founded on Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, RSF monitors and publicizes the conditions of press freedom, press pluralism, and independent journalism worldwide and advocates for journalists and media workers whose rights have been violated. The World Press Freedom Index is a cornerstone of that work, reflecting how much or how little a nation’s government respects the rights of journalists and media workers.

Based on five categories, the index evaluates press freedom in 180 countries and ranks them from freest to least. In the overall global rankings, Norway remains number one. Its Scandinavian neighbors, as well as the Netherlands, Switzerland, New Zealand, Jamaica, Belgium, and Costa Rica, are among the top ten nations that best uphold press freedom. Meanwhile, the United States has fallen from 45th position in 2023 to 55th in 2024, landing one notch after Belize and one before Gabon.

Of the five categories evaluated—political, legal, economic, sociocultural, and safety—the 2024 results show that political authorities are currently the worst threats to press freedom worldwide. RSF explains the evaluation of the political context as “the degree of support and respect for media autonomy, vis-à-vis political pressure from the state or from other political actors.”

A compromised press compromises democracy

Political threats to press freedom are particularly problematic in this international “super-election year.” Add rampant artificial intelligence-generated deepfakes, disinformation campaigns, political propaganda, and hyper-partisan media to the political context, and it’s imaginable that such pressures could compromise the course of democratic elections.

Political threats and animosity toward the press in the United States have been largely credited to former president Donald Trump. His use of tyrannical language, an infamous pronouncement that the media is the enemy of the people, a litany of offensive tweets, and the use of right-wing media outlets for personal and political gain certainly provide evidence for that supposition. Trump’s continued efforts to eviscerate the American public’s trust in the news media, especially during his criminal trials and second presidential campaign, have done nothing to alleviate the political stressors weighing on the US media environment.

However, as RSF observes, despite championing the slogan “journalism is not a crime,” the Biden Administration has languished on the Julian Assange case and neglected to hold Israel and Saudi Arabia accountable for their respective crimes against journalists. Israel is increasingly censoring media, has banned Al Jazeera, and is arbitrarily detaining journalists. As a result of the Israeli Defense Force’s open-ended war on the Palestinian people, Palestine has become the deadliest place in the world for journalists. Still, the Biden Administration maintains its allegiance to Israel, sending a message of impunity that endangers journalists everywhere and casts doubt on the sincerity of the administration’s so-called defense of journalism.

Other obstacles to US press freedom take on more economic and sociocultural proportions, such as those highlighted in a 2024 journal article by Victor Pickard and Louise Lincoln. Ongoing reporter layoffs, expanding news deserts, and “commercial print media in various stages of structural collapse” expose the free market’s inability to sustain the type of journalism that a democratic society requires. The disappearance of local, watchdog news has also compromised the public’s access to the type of credible, comprehensive news and information that strengthens democracy from the ground up. Pickard and Lincoln report how this loss leads to reduced civic engagement, increased misinformation and disinformation, and political polarization. Each of these issues has factored into RSF’s appraisal of press freedom in the US as “problematic” and its ranking among other countries.

Other factors contributing to the state of US press freedom

For more details on RSF’s assessment of US press freedom, Project Censored spoke with Clayton Weimers, the US Executive Director of Reporters Without Borders, about several lesser-known factors impacting the US’s ranking. One such factor is the status of HR 4250—the Protect Reporters from Exploitative State Spying Act, or PRESS Act for short.

Although most states have some form of shield law, a comprehensive federal law would go further to protect journalists and other media workers from potential punishment, such as fines or jail time, for refusing to give up their sources. If passed into law, this would be the strongest federal shield to date and would protect anyone who engages in journalism—including “unconventional journalists and upstart outlets” and telecommunications service providers—from government surveillance, congressional inquiries, and federal court orders to reveal sources and/or to hand over personal devices and records.

Weimers explained that “a federal press shield law like the PRESS Act is apolitical and commonsense protection that anyone who values the First Amendment should welcome. The Senate has the opportunity to deliver a long overdue boost to American press freedom by passing a bill that enjoys near unanimous, bipartisan support.” 

The Society of Professional Journalists has joined RSF, along with 120 other signatories, including Project Censored, on a letter to Chair of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary Dick Durbin and Ranking Member Lindsay Graham, prevailing on the Senate “to prioritize action on long-stalled legislation.”

Campus demonstrations

Social movements are fundamental to an open democracy, as is the public’s reliance on the press to inform citizens of a movement’s mission and activities. Students across the nation have united as a voice of moral conscience, choosing to utilize their civic right to call for an Israeli ceasefire and for the US to stop providing weapons to Israel. However, campus leaders’ punitive actions and law enforcement’s assault on students, student journalists, and the media during demonstrations weighed against the US’s press freedom score, exemplifying degradation in the political context.

The Washington Post reported that prominent billionaires and “business titans” exerted their political power and wealth to influence the retaliatory actions of academic leadership at Columbia University and political leaders, including New York City mayor Eric Adams. Weimers made clear that “RSF condemns the wave of arrests, criminal charges, and violence against journalists covering protests at US universities. We urge law enforcement agencies and school administrators to protect and respect the rights of all journalists, including student media.”

A related concern came to light with the May 10 release of the State Department’s National Security Memorandum 20. The directive issued by President Biden sought to verify that nations receiving US-made weapons are abiding by US and international law in their use. Interpreting the findings, Weimers says the report reaffirmed Israel’s supposed compliance with international humanitarian law yet completely omitted the press and journalists. “RSF denounces the State Department’s report for failing to hold Israel accountable for crimes against journalism. It is a disappointing missed opportunity to bring accountability for apparent violations of international human rights and clear crimes against journalists.”

US press and public perception

An April 2024 poll by the Pew Research Center showed that 73 percent of the adults surveyed view press freedom as highly important to society’s well-being. Many respondents also reported believing, to varying degrees, that US media is not entirely free to report the truth. Misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, censorship, and gatekeeping all play a role in challenging press freedom, but perhaps more disconcerting are the generative artificial intelligence (GAI) threats identified by RSF.

Those challenges affect information gathering, processing and dissemination, and the positioning of media. Weimers described Google’s generative AI search as possibly the next big blow to the economics of journalism. “Because generative AI will continue to be a competitor to traditional media, RSF calls on tech giants to communicate with the entire news media industry, ensuring economic stability and pluralism.” To properly safeguard the right to information, media professionals and organizations that uphold journalistic ethical values must also prioritize human rights, peace, and democracy. Referring to RSF’s Paris Charter that rolled out in November 2023, Weimers highlighted the organization’s guidelines for deploying AI in the media to help news media outlets ensure the integrity of news and information.

Returning to Julian Assange, it’s worth noting that RSF has been the only nongovernmental organization to consistently monitor Assange’s case for the past five years, including the extradition proceedings in the UK courts. RSF representatives have been among the rare few visitors to Assange in Belmarsh High Security Prison and have consistently called on the Biden Administration to allow for Assange’s prison release without delay.

Weimers summarized the potential for a new pathway to justice. “RSF welcomes the UK High Court’s decision for Julian Assange to have the right to appeal his extradition to the US where he faces trial and a possible life behind bars. We urge the United Kingdom to further act in the interest of journalism and press freedom by preventing this prosecution from going any further. We also urge President Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland to drop the charges altogether. This case sets an extremely dangerous precedent for American press freedom, opening the door to future Espionage Act prosecutions of any journalist, media outlet, or publisher who publishes government secrets.” 

The country of the First Amendment 

The state of press freedom is inextricably dependent on democracy and human rights, and vice versa. Speaking to RSF’s index and the political pressures on journalism this election year, Nobel-prize-winning journalist Maria Ressa told PBS that illiberal leaders are being elected globally by people whose trust in the news media has tanked. Journalists are being attacked on multiple fronts—in the business model, by political leaders seeking to grab power, and through information warfare, especially on social media.

Once considered a model for democracy and freedom of expression, the United States’s current ranking in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index is a reality check. The next US president, said Weimer, “will undoubtedly have a major impact on the state of press freedom in the United States, both through their policy and their rhetoric.”

Project Censored is deeply saddened by the passing of Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders and tenacious defender of press freedom. We salute Deloire’s legacy and offer our condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.