On World Press Freedom Day, the U.S. Faces New Threats
Today is World Press Freedom Day, a day the United Nations established to commemorate the courage of journalists across the globe. Reporters challenge power by gathering facts and exposing truth, and in many parts of the world they do so in the face of intimidation and violence.
In the United States, this day has typically brought awareness of the dangers to journalists in war zones and dictatorships, but this year also brings a new focus on the need to protect press freedom at home.
Threats to the First Amendment
Donald Trump’s rise to power and his administration’s unprecedented threats to journalists and hostility to the First Amendment have made press freedom more of an issue in the United States than at any time in recent memory.
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’ statement earlier this week, in which he said the administration has “looked at” changes to libel laws that would curtail press freedoms, brought new concerns.
One hundred days into Trump’s presidency, it’s not yet clear how much his rhetoric will translate into active repression.
To address those questions, PEN America released the report Trump the Truth: Freedom of Expression in the President’s First 100 Days. The report catalogues 76 incidents in which Trump or other members of his administration have undermined the press. These range from statements that are “damaging to the principle” of an independent press (like calling the media “the enemy of the American people”) to Trump’s many outright lies and falsehoods to policies that are more actively repressive, such as requiring travelers to give border agents access to their digital devices.
MuckRock, a nonprofit news site dedicated to helping journalists, researchers, activists and everyday people access public records, offers this roundup of what Trump’s first 100 days have meant for Freedom of Information Act requests (responses are even slower) and open-data access (not looking good).
Of particular concern is the Trump administration’s refusal to make the White House Visitors Log public and the movement or deletion of key data sources from government sites. Free Press worked with MuckRock on an action earlier this year protesting the FBI’s decision to require FOIA requesters to use either its restrictive online portal or a fax machine.
The Index on Censorship, a UK-based nonprofit that campaigns against censorship and promotes freedom of expression worldwide, has its own report, It’s Not Just Trump: U.S. Media Fraying at the Edges, which documents cases where federal authorities as well as state and local police have harassed, detained or arrested journalists and media makers.
The report notes a disturbing trend of treating reporters as active participants in protests and demonstrations, which could have a chilling effect on coverage, especially for freelance reporters and citizen journalists. The report notes that this trend started well before Trump’s election.
Indeed, press-freedom groups and prominent journalists agree that the Obama administration was one of the most closed, secretive and punitive in history. It set a record for refusing to disclose federal records requested under FOIA and spent $36 million in its final year alone fighting FOIA lawsuits.
The administration also took a particularly aggressive stance toward government officials who leaked information or talked to the press.
Obama’s administration prosecuted nine cases against whistleblowers and leakers compared to only three by all previous administrations combined. Justice Department and FBI officials spied on reporters and issued subpoenas trying to force them to reveal their sources in criminal cases.
These cases are still impacting press freedom. For instance, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Obama administration when it determined that there was no such thing as a “reporter’s privilege,” which, as investigative reporter James Risen pointed out in the New York Times, means that a reporter could be jailed “for refusing to comply with a subpoena from the Trump administration’s Justice Department to reveal the CIA sources used for articles on the agency’s investigation into Russian hacking during the 2016 presidential election.”
And it’s not only our government that threatens press freedom; it’s also our economic system — especially the increasing media consolidation that threatens the jobs, livelihoods and expression of the nation’s journalists.
The NewsGuild-Communication Workers of America, a union representing 25,000 print journalists and other media workers, has organized employees at Digital First Media and Gatehouse Media nationwide as part of its #NewsMatters campaign. Their action today highlights how corporate cuts to newsrooms and other departments damages the journalism at those papers.
Growing support for press freedom
Yet for all the bad news, there’s also good news.
Even as Trump stokes hatred of the press among his base, there’s also been an unprecedented rise in popular awareness and support for press freedom and accountability journalism.
Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists told Poynter that the organization collected about half a million dollars from more than 4,000 individual donors following Meryl Streep’s shout-out to the organization in her Golden Globes acceptance speech in February. It’s unusual for press-freedom organizations to receive small-dollar donations from individuals, a development Simon described as “a game-changer.”
That bump in funding has enabled some new efforts. Earlier this year, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Columbia University announced the creation of the Knight First Amendment Institute, a $60-million effort “to preserve and expand First Amendment rights in the digital age through research and education, and by supporting litigation in favor of protecting freedom of expression and the press.”
Among that center’s first activities will be the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a website that will document press-freedom violations in the United States.
According to Poynter, the site will launch later this spring and will be led by a coalition of groups including the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the Index on Censorship, under the direction of former Politico reporter Peter Sterne.
Last month, Pierre Omidyar’s philanthropic investment firm Omidyar Network announced a $100-million investment over the next three years to address “the global trust deficit” by strengthening independent media and investigative journalism, tackling misinformation and hate speech, and enabling people to engage on issues that affect them. The first $4.5 million went to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the group that assembled the massive Panama Papers investigation.
Democracy Fund, another of Omidyar’s philanthropies, announced more than $12 million in new grants aimed at supporting “an independent, robust free press,” with major portions going to the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity, ProPublica and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. (Disclosure: Democracy Fund is a supporter of Free Press.)
Support for press freedom — just like the threats to it — affects access to public records, government transparency, physical safety of journalists, legal protections, digital security, economic sustainability and more.
Today, in honor of World Press Freedom Day, we honor the vital work our allies are doing. If you’d like to let us know about a project or organization working on press freedom that we didn’t mention, tweet us @freepress.