Editorial: Free press is not as free as many in the U.S. would like you to believe
Reporters Without Borders recently released its 2014 World Press Freedom Index and the United States fell 13 places to 46th on the list. This puts America behind several nations well-known for their lack of free press, including former Soviet republics such as Lithuania. According to the report, reasons for the drop include the seizure of the Associated Press phone records by the Department of Justice in order to identify the source of a leak and pursuit of whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.
Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison in August for leaking classified information which exposed massive government wrongdoings. One file was a video of American soldiers laughing while shooting Iraqi civilians from a helicopter. Another revealed that many inmates were being detained indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay without any evidence of them being involved in terrorist activity.
Manning's conviction came shortly after Edward Snowden was forced to flee the country after leaking documents showing mass surveillance by the NSA.
At the time, Reporters Without Borders issued a statement saying "The disproportionate sentence for Manning hits hard at whistleblowers and shows how vulnerable they are. The Army is sending a clear message to them and to all journalists who dare to report whistleblowers' disclosures: the United States will strike back severely at anyone who uncovers information of public interest concerning the exercise of public powers."
Although the government has long tried to prosecute whistleblowers and those who publish the leaked documents, it has rarely succeeded until recently. In 1971, the Washington Post and the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers, classified documents which demonstrated that Lyndon Johnson and the rest of the executive branch had, to quote the Times, "systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress" about the Vietnam War. The federal government tried to stop publication and the case wound up before the Supreme Court. In the majority opinion, Hugo Black ruled that publication could continue, writing "Only a free and unrestrained press can expose deception in government... Far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly." All charges against the leaker, Daniel Ellsberg, were eventually dismissed.
In only about 40 years, press freedom has fallen dramatically. Not only are leakers sentenced to lengthy prison terms or forced to flee the country, but press records are seized by the federal government to identify the source of the leakers. Although most states have "shield" laws protecting journalists from these searches, no such law exists on the federal level.
The United States' large drop in press freedom is deeply disturbing. When the government can suppress information on abuses, it allows those violations to continue indefinitely. A free press means a free country, and with the press getting less free, it brings the rest of our freedoms down with it.
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