‘Problematic’ Media Climate in United States Leads to Drop in Press Freedom Ranking
On the heels of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s arrest in Britain and subsequent indictment across the pond, the free press took another hit Thursday when an international press advocacy group classified America’s media climate as “problematic” in its latest worldwide report.
Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 Press Freedom Index arrived the same morning as U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s much-ballyhooed press conference detailing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian meddling during the 2016 election.
While Barr’s remarks and the release of Mueller’s much-anticipated report dominated the day’s news cycle, Reporters Without Borders was outlining troubling details about the state of press freedoms in the United States in the Trump era.
“Never before have U.S. journalists been subjected to so many death threats or turned so often to private security firms for protection,” the organization said in its index, which ranked 180 countries and territories on a scale from “good” to “very serious.”
U.S. Falls in Annual Press Freedom Ranking — Again
The United States, where the free press is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution, was ranked 48th, behind such countries as Romania, Chile and Tonga. Norway topped the list for the third consecutive year, while Finland and Sweden rounded out the top three.
That America dropped three spots from last year is significant given the already charged political and media landscape that exists, and the country’s noteworthy two-spot decline a year ago. Since President Donald Trump came into office, the United States has fallen from 43rd to 48th in the rankings.
The country’s continued descent was partly attributed to a rise in death threats against journalists, the fatal shooting inside the Capital Gazette newsroom in Maryland last June, the “risk of arrest” of journalists covering protests, and anti-media rhetoric more generally.
“Amid one of the American journalism community’s darkest moments, President Trump continued to spout his notorious anti-press rhetoric, disparaging and attacking the media at a national level,” the report said. “Simultaneously, journalists across the country reported terrifying harassment and death threats, online and in person, that were particularly abusive toward women and journalists of color.”
The Trump Effect
Although the group acknowledged that the threats to the press go “beyond Trump,” the president shares responsibility for the virulent anti-media rhetoric ricocheting across the country, the report notes.
“He has declared the press an ‘enemy of the American people’ in a series of verbal attacks toward journalists, attempted to block White House access to multiple media outlets, and routinely uses the term ‘fake news’ in retaliation for critical reporting,” Reporters Without Borders said of Trump.
“He has even called for revoking certain media outlets’ broadcasting licenses,” the report continued. “The violent anti-press rhetoric from the highest level of the U.S. government has been coupled with an increase in the number of press freedom violations at the local level as journalists run the risk of arrest for covering protests or simply attempting to ask public officials questions. Reporters have even been subject to physical assault while on the job.”
As the report details, the degradation of constitutionally protected press freedoms precedes Trump. The Obama administration was rebuked in previous years for an unprecedented war on whistleblowers — one that continues to this day under his successor. Obama’s Department of Justice prosecuted more leakers under the Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined. It was during Obama’s term that federal prosecutors tried, but ultimately failed, to pressure a former New York Times journalist to reveal the identity of his source.
Still, Trump’s blistering attacks on the media are particularly disconcerting, if not unsurprising. In his first press conference as president-elect, Trump repeatedly referred to a CNN reporter as “fake news” and called BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage.”
Since his rise to political prominence, journalists covering Trump’s rallies have reported both verbal and physical attacks. And equally unsettling: Just one week after five people were killed in the Capital Gazette shooting, Trump referred to journalists covering his rally as “bad people” and estimated that 75 percent are “dishonest.”
Free Press Continues to Be Challenged
Rhetoric and abusive presidential barbs or tweets don’t tell the whole story.
According to the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Press Freedom Tracker, five journalists have so far been arrested in 2019, while 10 have been attacked. From the time the group first began documenting incidents and through the end of last year, there were 88 cases of physical attacks on journalists and 27 legal subpoenas related to their reporting.
Most recently, the indictment of Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, has drawn outrage from press freedom defenders. Assange is most famous for his work in disseminating sensitive state department cables, among other documents and material, in 2010. WikiLeaks received the files from former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who is considered one of the most important whistblowers in history. Manning served seven years in federal prison before Obama commuted her sentence. However, she’s back in prison after refusing to testify in a WikiLeaks-related grand jury.
The charges against Assange, which we laid out in a previous piece, is equivalent to criminalizing journalism, advocates say.
The attacks to press freedoms go beyond the United States, as Reporters Without Borders details.
Overall, the 2019 Press Freedom Index, titled a “Cycle of Fear,” describes a deeply unsettling period for journalists across the world. Underscoring the problem, only 24 percent of the 180 countries listed are classified as “good,” according to the report.
“The hostility towards journalists expressed by political leaders in many countries has incited increasingly serious and frequent acts of violence that have fueled an unprecedented level of fear and danger for journalists,” the report warned.