Delphine Halgand paints a dismal portrait of the state of press freedom in today’s world. The U.S. Director of Reporters Without Borders spoke with GW students yesterday about her organization’s work to protect that “freedom that allows you to verify the existence of all the other freedoms.” But across the globe, in developing and developed countries alike, the freedom of information is far from secure.
Global press freedom is at a 12-year low, with only 13% of the world’s population enjoying a free press. Journalists across the globe often risk false arrests and phony indictments for their work. Halgand recalled a “leftist, peacenik” colleague who, after reporting on the activities of the Erdogan administration in Turkey during the coup this summer, was detained for ten days and currently faces eighteen years in prison on terrorism charges. This story is not unique; over 300 journalists and bloggers – or, as Halgand referred to them, citizen journalists – are in jail for reporting on the actions of oppressive regimes.
But many journalists have more to fear than merely the wrath of the legal system, Halgand continued. Journalists are often kidnapped and killed when reporting in war zones or failing states. In 2012, Marie Colvin, an American reporter, was deliberately killed by the Syrian Army on the orders of Bashar Al-Assad’s government after she reported on the number of civilian casualties in the Syrian city of Homs. She was just one of the nearly 150 reporters killed in 2012, according to Reporters Without Borders. These looming safety and legal threats work to discourage and suppress the free flow of information.
Halgand was careful to note that press freedom also faces significant obstacles outside of totalitarian regimes and conflict zones. Even in supposedly free states, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, or Canada, recent administrations have expanded the scope of the long-recognized national security exception to the press’ right to disseminate information. In the United States, the Obama administration subpoenaed reporter James Risen to reveal the source of classified intelligence, arguing before the Fourth Circuit that “there is no First Amendment testimonial privilege, absolute or qualified, that protects a reporter from being compelled to testify … even though the reporter promised confidentiality to his source.” Under the pretense of national security, Halgand noted, the Harper and Cameron administrations in Canada and the UK, respectively, both acted to reduce public access to information and increase government control over reporters.
But when asked about her views on the various whistleblowers and leakers – particularly Edward Snowden and Julian Assange – that the Obama administration has sought to extradite and prosecute, Halgand drew a clear distinction between Snowden, who released documents to members of the accredited press for vetting prior to publication, and Assange, who in her view acted recklessly by publishing the information wholesale on WkiLeaks for all to see.
Halgand concluded on a note of optimism. In her opinion, the explosion of citizen journalists with increased access to social media has destroyed the government’s ability to control the flow of information, outside of a few totalitarian regimes where even the Internet in heavily censored. The Internet has enabled activists, journalists, hackers and leakers to quickly distribute information being hidden by the government. Governments can no longer pretend a quickly suppressed protest never happened. When any citizen with a smartphone can record and report the abuses of a brutal dictatorship or even a democratic regime, it is impossible to truly cut off the people’s access to information.