This post is co-authored by Jillian C. York.
Nineteen years ago, before the Internet had reached millions of homes, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the celebration of press freedom, deeming May 3 “World Press Freedom Day.” Since then, the day has been celebrated by organizations and government entities alike.
Today, the Internet age has created a whole new slew of concerns about press freedom. Despite early declarations that cyberspace would not be governed, it soon was, with governments such as Tunisia and Saudi Arabia censoring the Internet as quickly as it became available. Today, more than 60 countries engage in online censorship of some kind, with corporate online spaces — think Facebook — restricting speech as well.
A year after the start of the Arab Spring and the subsequent spark of social movements throughout the world, it remains a turbulent time for press freedom. As we reported in April, a multitude of countries have begun arresting journalists for their postings on social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook. And offline, censorship remains the norm in much of the world.
Following the ouster of Ben Ali, Tunisia quickly made strides toward a free press and open Internet, unblocking websites and allowing journalists to operate freely. In fact, Tunisia is hosting UNESCO for the World Press Freedom conference, where a representative from the U.S. State Department will deliver remarks at the opening ceremony just as a new report by Freedom House credits Tunisia with significant strides in press freedom.
But even as Tunisia’s revolution has marked a new era of openness, just a little more than a year later, there’s once again talk of censorship. A Facebook activist and citizen journalist was recently sentenced to seven years in prison, and Nabil Karoui, the owner of independent Nessma TV, is on trial for showing the Iranian film “Persepolis” on the air; if he is convicted, Karoui’s case could set a dangerous precedent for censorship in the North African country.
In post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt, the situation is also shaky. On Twitter, Egyptian revolutionary Mosa’ab Elshamy described the state of press freedom as “generally better than [in the] Mubarak days but worse than what revolution aspired for.” Al Ahram — the state-run daily that once photoshopped Mubarak to appear to be the leader of the Middle East peace talks — now reports on the revolution, but the media landscape still leaves much to be desired. As Egyptian blogger Amr Gharbeia said: “[There are] some independent journalists, [but] no independent journalism.”
The Internet Promotes Freedom
Although governments have been exerting control over the Internet for nearly as long as it’s been around, media experts are quick to point out that the overall impact of the Internet is toward openness.
With the Internet, “censorship is harder; there are more sources of information,” sociologist Zeynep Tufekci told us. “The barrier to publish has become lower, so there are more people publishing information that may not have found an audience before.” This was visible in Egypt as well where, before Mubarak fell, he tried desperately to keep a lid on information traveling throughout his country, yet was unable to stop the massive amounts of video showing the rest of the world his crumbling empire.
But just as technology allows for journalists to sprout up from anywhere and for stories to spread not only across countries but around the globe virtually instantaneously, it also gives governments another avenue to crack down on them. After the governments of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya fell, journalists found ample evidence of those governments tracking local reporters with sophisticated technology, in some cases leading to arrest and torture.
Nonetheless, more information is indeed available than ever before, begging the question: What happens next?
The Fragile First Amendment
As the U.S. government helps celebrate World Press Freedom Day in Tunisia this week, it’s also important to meditate on the current state of our own country. While technology has shaped the media landscape just as much as in countries where press freedom is traditionally scarce, it has also affected the government’s response to said freedom — and it hasn’t always been positive. While there’s no doubt the First Amendment still gives U.S. journalists some of the strongest press freedom protections in the world, that reputation has also been mired by recent events.
As the New York Times reported in February, “Today, advances in surveillance technology allow the government to keep a perpetual eye on those with security clearances, and give prosecutors the ability to punish officials for disclosing secrets …” Partly as a result, the Obama administration has prosecuted six leakers to the press since taking office in 2009 — more than all prior administrations combined.
This has a chilling effect not only on government whistleblowers, but the journalists covering them as well. In one case, New York Times reporter James Risen has been subpoenaed multiple times to testify to his sources for reporting he did on his book “State of War” about Bush administration intelligence failures. In another case, it’s clear from court filings the government had been reading emails of current and former ABC journalists Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito.
This is especially troubling given the State Department’s push for stronger press freedom protections worldwide. ABC White House correspondent Jake Tapper astutely raised this contradiction with White House Press Secretary Jay Carney after Carney praised two American journalists who died in Syria covering the government crackdown on democratic protesters and were known for practicing uncompromising, aggressive journalism: “There just seems to be disconnect here. You want aggressive journalism abroad; you just don’t want it in the United States,” Tapper said. When Carney demurred, Tapper asked again, “So the truth should come out abroad; it shouldn’t come out here?”
Unfortunately, local law enforcement has also tarnished the U.S. image of broad press freedoms, even in times of protest. More broadly, local police forces, most notably the New York City Police Department, have come under fire for their seemingly unconstitutional treatment of reporters covering the Occupy Wall Street protests over the past year. Josh Stearns of Free Press has documented more than 70 arrests of journalists since the protests began in September. Many more have reported being harrassed or assaulted for just doing their job. As a result, Reporters Without Borders dropped the U.S. 27 places to 47th worldwide in its annual country-by-country report on press freedom. The recently released Freedom House rankings only dropped the U.S. slightly, but also cited the arrests at Occupy protests as the reason.
An upside to the U.S. system is that courts can — and do — act as a check on overzealous prosecutions and police tactics against journalists. The Fourth Circuit has twice ruled Risen does not have to give up his sources in the aforementioned leak case, citing reporter’s privilege. And another court will soon have the opportunity to hear complaints about the NYPD, as a major lawsuit was just filed by many plaintiffs, alleging — among other charges — that the police interfered with journalists’ ability to observe and violated their First Amendment rights.
Given its long history and tradition of a free press, the U.S. should be a beacon to other countries, such as the emerging democracies of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. But anytime the U.S. considers advocating for a freer press — like it will in Tunisia today, it should be mindful of its own actions, or risk losing its ability to influence. Because as we know, information travels much faster now, and unlike in the past, there are likely countless citizen journalists now spreading news about the United States’ domestic approach to press freedom abroad, just like so many do right here at home.
Jillian C. York is the director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She writes regularly about free expression, politics, and the Internet, with particular focus on the Arab world. She is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online, and has written for a variety of publications, including Al Jazeera, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and Bloomberg.
Trevor Timm is an activist and blogger at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He specializes in free speech and government transparency issues. Previously, he helped the former general counsel of the New York Times write a book on press freedom and the First Amendment. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic and Al Jazeera.