As we begin Free Press Week here at FIRE, a study released last week by Reporters Without Borders brings some sobering news about the state of freedom of the press worldwide. According to the nonprofit organization’s “2015 World Press Freedom Index,” two thirds of the 180 countries examined for the report fared less well than in the previous year. This includes the United States, which—despite the crucial protections of the First Amendment and the guarantees it provides for journalists and media outlets—fell three spots from last year and places 49th in the world.
Reporters Without Borders uses seven categories as criteria for its rankings: pluralism (which measures “the degree to which opinions are represented in the media”), media independence, environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency, infrastructure, and abuses.
The United States’ poor performance with respect to these indicators is reason for major concern. As the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) reports:
The need for a federal shield law to protect journalists from being compelled to name confidential sources became a national conversation as the seven-year legal battle between the Department of Justice and The New York Times investigative reporter James Risen came to a head. Risen was issued a subpoena to testify against former CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling, who was accused of leaking to Risen information that detailed a botched CIA mission. Although the Supreme Court would not hear Risen’s case, Attorney General Eric Holder eventually conceded and did not force Risen to testify.
Moreover, the SPLC points out that student journalists and media outlets on American college campuses faced more than their share of abuses and rights violations in 2014:
Student journalists also struggle with transparency issues when it comes to obtaining records from their schools.
School administrators often overreach when claiming protection from [the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)], creating barriers for journalists seeking information about university presidential searches and even campus parking tickets.
Of course, those who follow FIRE’s work already know about the threats to freedom of the press faced by college journalists. Our ongoing case at the University of Tulsa (TU) is only the latest example of university administrators interfering with a free student press and its ability to report on important issues taking place both on and off campus. As our press release detailed last week, TU—in addition to flagrantly dispensing with any notions of free speech and due process in the case of student George “Trey” Barnett—has threatened the independent student newspaper The Collegian for reporting on Barnett’s case and criticizing the university’s treatment of him.
We will have more on The Torch this week about the TU case and similar campus media issues as Free Press Week rolls on. For now, though, please check out the full report from Reporters Without Borders as well as the organization’s analysis of important worldwide trends regarding freedom of the press.