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SAN DIEGO, Calif.--Government secrecy, access to official sources, financial and legal issues regarding the growth of online media, and the safety of foreign correspondents in Middle East hot-spots are among the top issues listed in the new report on press freedom presented at the midyear meeting of the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) in San Diego.
In the land of the free, where Second Amendment gun rights are mentioned often by government officials, freedom of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment still sometimes elusive.
These issues might seem to pale compared to those facing journalists in Latin America. In the United States, journalists seldom get being fired for doing their job; neither broadcasters nor newspapers are shut down by the government; and journalists are infrequently under physical threat. However, the list of incidents against one of the most touted principles of American society has raised some questions from seasoned journalists in this country.
“The fact that a federal judge authorized the search of information about everyone who had accessed the WikiLeaks reports is worrisome,’’ said Claudio Paolillo, editor-in-chief of Uruguay's weekly newspaper Busqueda and regional director of the Inter-American Press Society.
Paolillo and many of his colleagues at the conference extensively discussed the U.S. government’s role in closing the WikiLeaks server to block access to its files. Paolillo and others at the conference consider this a troubling development. The IAPA press freedom report notes that the website’s host, Amazon.com, blocked access to WikiLeaks, after U.S. officials condemned the leak of classified government documents providing “embarrassing” information from official U.S. sources.
Among the disturbing U.S. government actions against WikiLeaks was its issuing subpoenas for such people as the group’s founder Julian Assange; soldier Bradley Manning; Rop Gonggrijp, a Dutch citizen who used to work with WikiLeaks; American computer programmer Jacob Appelbaum; and Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of the Icelandic parliament and former WikiLeaks volunteer.
The U.S. Justice Department indicated that it was pursuing subpoenas and taking other actions as part of an “ongoing criminal investigation.”
“Does this mean that every newspaper and journalist that printed and worked on this story is being subject to this criminal investigation? Are they [the Justice Department] going to investigate the New York Times, El Pais, and every media outlet that printed these documents,” asked Paolillo?
Robert Rivard, an editor and executive vice president for news at the San Antonio Express, reported that, so far, the U.S. government has not announced such measures. However, for many members of SIP, the federal judge's agreement to issue the subpoenas constitutes a serious threat to the future of press freedom.
“So far, nobody has recognized Julian Assange as a journalist and he is more considered as a source,” said Rivard during the presentation. Still, many attending the presentation of the report consider the judge’s inclusion of Twitter conversations, postal, e-mail and Internet Protocol addresses, as well as bank accounts and credit card details, a violation of the principle of press freedom.
The List Goes On
The IAPA report suggest that the U.S. government may be employing a double standard, because it aborted investigations of government officials, who destroyed 92 videos revealing activities at secret prisons of the Central Intelligence Agency, even though the CIA itself acknowledged the fact.
“By not granting access to the photos and documents about the U.S. Army’s abuses, the Obama administration reversed its original position,” states the report.
A survey on government openness conducted by the Associated Press found all efforts at CIA transparency are "often thwarted by old patterns of secrecy." Although the survey found signs of progress in several places, mostly regarding government efforts to make government information available online, it also found restrictions, especially when it comes to officials' text messages.
A recent “Knight Open Government Survey,” published by the independent National Security Archive at George Washington University, found that merely 49 of the 90 federal agencies comply with Freedom of Information Act procedures. Many journalists believe the most valuable government information can only be acquired through the so-called leaks.
Big Brother’s Real Reality Show
Although many U.S. news organizations complain about government efforts to conceal, or in the best cases, delay, the release of sensitive information, the federal government has stepped up efforts to increase surveillance on civilians, especially those of foreign origin.
Only last month, the American Civil Liberties Union won a federal court appeal on behalf of a coalition of attorneys and human rights, labor and media organizations to stop the government from media surveillance and collecting international e-mails and telephone calls.
There had also been reports of arrests of U.S. and foreign correspondents working in the United States, while covering events, which numerous IAPA members regard as an open attack on press freedom.
Certainly, U.S. journalists at the highest risk are those deployed to foreign countries, such as Libya or Egypt. Since Libya’s revolt, the Committee to Protect Journalists has documented more than 50 attacks on reporters, including two fatalities, more than 33 detentions, five assaults, two attacks on news facilities, numerous instances of equipment confiscation, three cases of obstruction, the jamming of at least two satellite news transmissions, and the interruption of Internet service.
Still, any U.S. journalist who takes an assignment abroad understands the risks and they often expect them. However, many are troubled by the fact that even inside the land of the Second Amendment from time to time they can face trouble.
“We might think that in this country the freedom of information and the freedom of the press are respected rights, but we are not anywhere near where we pretend we are,” said Rivard, who is also president of IAPA’s Freedom of the Press Committee.
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