Public hurt by threats to press freedom

The News TribuneMay 2, 2014 

Pakistani journalists hold pictures of slain Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus during an April 7 demonstration in Islamabad, Pakistan. The journalists protested to condemn violence against journalists in Pakistan and around the world.


Saturday is World Press Freedom Day, and unfortunately there’s not a lot to celebrate.

All around the world, the public’s right to know is threatened — sometimes by censorship or denying access to information, but all too often by arresting journalists, threatening them or, in the most extreme cases, killing them.

Among the casualties in the past year was Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus, who was shot to death April 4 while covering the recent election in Afghanistan. Canadian reporter Kathy Gannon was injured in the attack. At least 70 journalists were killed in last year, including ones covering the war in Syria and strife in Pakistan, Egypt and Iraq.

When a journalist is targeted, what’s really under attack is the public’s access to information. Killing the messenger is an old tactic, but rarely works in the long run.

Another indication that press freedom is trending the wrong way is the annual Freedom of the Press index compiled by Freedom House, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization. It found that global press freedom was at its lowest point in 10 years.

Of 197 countries and territories surveyed in 2013, only 32 percent were rated as “free.” Another 35 percent were “partly free,” and 33 percent “not free.” Of countries whose status changed since the previous year, six were in a negative direction.

The United States was rated as “free,” but it got lower marks this year for greater restrictions on national security reporting. That score is likely to drop even further if Intelligence Community Directive 119, issued in March by national intelligence director James Clapper, is allowed to continue in its current form.

The directive’s aim is to shut down the flow of information to the media from employees who haven’t been specifically authorized by agency bosses to provide it. That also includes unclassified information that is merely “related” to intelligence — which could be just about anything. Even off-the-record opinions about policies and leaders could be met with punishment.

Curiously, intelligence agency employees are not banned from providing unclassified information to people who are not in the media. So conceivably it would be possible to circumvent the directive by first giving the information to a non-media third party who would act as a go-between.

Many Americans have been appalled by revelations of the intelligence community’s surveillance of their personal communications. If anything, these agencies need to do more to build public trust and confidence. The overly broad, prescriptive Directive 119 goes in the opposite direction.

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