You wouldn’t think handling a notebook or a camera could be a hazardous line of work. But according to the latest global Press Freedom Index, abuse and oppression of reporters has made journalism an increasingly risky job in many countries. The past year has even left a notable taint on the U.S. press, despite the country’s mythos as a beacon of free expression.
While the United States certainly hasn’t descended into the ranks of the most oppressive regimes, the watchdog group Reporters without Borders observes that in 2011 the political barriers and outright attacks facing reporters had led to a steep drop in the rankings — 27 places down, to number 47:
In the space of two months in the United States, more than 25 [journalists] were subjected to arrests and beatings at the hands of police who were quick to issue indictments for inappropriate behaviour, public nuisance or even lack of accreditation.
The most high-profile violations of press freedom took place during the Occupy protests, as reporters were abused by police and otherwise stonewalled by authorities.
Ever-faithful to his 1% cronies, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg moved swiftly to restrict press coverage of Occupy Wall Street actions, barring journalists from Zuoccotti Park. Authorities justified the “media blackout” by insisting that the purpose was “to prevent a situation from getting worse and to protect members of the press.” The safety assurances presumably weren’t much comfort to the many reporters who got roughed up and arrested while trying to do their jobs.
But as usual, the crackdowns only challenged activists to push back more fiercely as digital images and reports of police brutality and oppression went viral. And much of the heavy lifting was accomplished by a deft, if somewhat chaotic, grassroots media sphere.
Josh Stearns at Free Press tracked dozens of arrests across several Occupy cities through Twitter dispatches:
#occupyoakland cops pointing at me, oh great…
#occupyoakland arrested in wagon now…
#occupyoakland I am out and charged. I had my press pass in full view at arrest. One OPD officer recognized me, knew my comics.”
And as New York City cops rounded up protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1, Alternet’s Kristen Gwynne chronicled via tweet:
Trapped with hundreds of people on the Brooklyn Bridge. Cops making mass arrests. We can’t move….
Just got out of jail…Still love #OccupyWallSt
But the narrative arc of the Occupy crackdowns on both journalists and protesters reflects a much bigger back story: The political establishment understands the power of the press to foment rebellion, but it does not understand that the media are constantly adapting and growing more polymorphous, and thus harder to crush.
However, while the Occupy-related arrests were a major factor in the lower ranking, the organization also noted failures to address other longstanding press freedom concerns.
Reporters Without Borders’ (RWB) D.C. Director Delphine Halgand told In These Times, “this big decline [in ranking] is also due to old concerns we have and which weren’t addressed by the Obama administration.” These include excessive limits on access to government information (despite the guarantees of the Freedom of Information Act), the lack of a legal protections for confidential journalistic sources; and threats to Internet freedom posed by the proposed SOPA and PIPA legislation.
Halgand added that the drop in the index should “play the role of a wake-up call to remind the U.S. [it is] a strong democracy, where the freedom of expression is guaranteed by the U.S. constitution, and journalists have to be able to do their work freely.”
But violations in other regions documented by RWB are more troubling, especially in a year when anti-authoritarian popular uprisings were the main headline.
Though the Egyptian Revoution seeded hopes of social transformation across the region, the media activists who stormed Tahrir Square have been clawed back by the military régime, with similar backlash in Bahrain and Yemen.
In 176th-ranked the Syria, “total censorship, widespread surveillance, indiscriminate violence and government manipulation made it impossible for journalists to work,” according to RWB. And before Arab Spring-style protests could blossom in Asia, authorities nipped dissent in the bud:
Many arrests were made in Vietnam (172nd). In China (174th), the government responded to regional and local protests and to public impatience with scandals and acts of injustice by feverishly reinforcing its system of controlling news and information, carrying out extrajudicial arrests and stepping up Internet censorship.
There were also some mild successes, such as some improvement in the autonomy of Tunisian journalists following the overthrow of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The number of nations in Africa ranking in the Top 50 inched up (despite greater polarization between the best and worst performers on the continent).
Beyond that, the numbers in the index shouldn’t obscure the countless breakthroughs led by bloggers and other digital activists who laid the social groundwork for dissent movements — the collective impact of which proves greater than the sum of its parts.
Despite the gaps and pitfalls that beset the Arab Spring countries still enmeshed in pro-democracy struggles, Hagland said, “the media are playing a crucial role… And even if journalists or bloggers are arrested, often they are playing a huge role in the uprising.”
Glibly dubbed the “Year of the Protester” by Time magazine, 2011 exposed gaps between the 1% and the rest of us in the economy and civil society, bringing new risks for reporters as well as triumph for emerging media formats. In many cases, members of the media themselves became the news. Yet many ordinary people too became the media. In the United States, amateurs stepped up when conventional journalists failed to do their job of exercising freedom of expression to serve the public interest.
And that’s where the real spotlight should be: No one should be punished for telling the truth, whether it’s their job to do so, or simply their responsibility as citizens.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.