Reporters Without Borders today released the text of the letters it sent on 8 September to presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain urging them to provide better protection for freedom of the press and to announce concrete steps to guarantee the American people’s right to be informed.
"Journalists are guardians of democracy whose rights must be protected around the world, not least in the United States, to which emerging democracies look for guidance, and where free speech is an inalienable right explicitly protected by the Constitution,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“Regrettably, this is far from being the case and there is still much to accomplish. The United States ranks now 36th out of 173 countries in the 2008 Press Freedom Index which Reporters Without Borders released today, meriting only a ‘satisfactory’ grade, despite an improvement from last year (when it was 44th out of 169 countries).
"This situation is unacceptable for the country known for its First Amendment rights. We are asking the candidates to let the American people know how they will improve this ranking and improve access to information for their fellow Americans. In times of important political decisions and economic crisis, the American people need more than ever to have access to accurate and diverse information in order to make sound decisions."
In its letters to the presidential campaigns, Reporters Without Borders raised the issues of impunity in the murder of Californian newspaper editor Chauncey Bailey, better protection for reporters’ sources, access to more diverse news and information, Internet neutrality, and the treatment of journalists working in areas under US control in Iraq and Afghanistan.
By writing to the candidates, Reporters Without Borders hopes to gain insight into their views on these pressing matters as well as to learn how they would help to improve the status of press freedom at home and abroad if elected.
Reporters Without Borders noted the historical nature of this presidential election, which has change and a new direction for the United States as its central theme, and which offers an exciting opportunity to reinforce the important role of a free press in the United States.
The letters said: "We look to your administration for change from the policies of secrecy, ambiguity and avoidance that have hampered the work of a free press. We are also hopeful that as President you will champion the cause of press freedom and denounce its abuses everywhere, whether those abuses are committed by friends or foes." It added: "Recent years have proven that even in the United States, where we take pride in guarantees of personal freedoms including freedom of expression and press, those rights are nonetheless vulnerable to incursion if we are not vigilant and active in protecting them."
The issues at stake
Reporters Without Borders raised the case of Chauncey Bailey, the Oakland Post editor who was murdered for his work as an investigative journalist on 2 August 2007. The investigation has been marred by local conflicts of interests and impunity reigns. Reporters Without Borders asked both candidates if they would support an independent investigation by the Attorney General into Bailey’s murder. "The justice system has to send a strong signal to those who want to silence the media, and show them that impunity will not prevail,” the letters said. “Those responsible for the murder as well as those protecting them must be brought to justice. This is unlikely to happen unless this becomes a federal case."
Reporters Without Borders also voiced its concerns about the confidentiality of sources, calling it "a cornerstone of investigative journalism [that] must be respected” or else “the ability of the media to find and provide information to the public as members of civil society is undermined." The letters gave concrete examples of journalists sentenced by federal courts to prison terms or fines after refusing to reveal sources, and described legislation that would help to protect journalists from imprisonment for not revealing their sources, including the Free Flow of Information Act, which passed in the House of Representatives on 16 October 2007. The letters asked the two candidates whether they would protect reporters’ sources and support a bill that would include a less limited definition of "the information that is protected by the privilege of reporters and those defined as journalists in the Senate and House versions of the bill."
On the issues of news diversity and media ownership, the letters voiced concern about the FCC’s recent decision to relax restrictions on the expansion of news conglomerates. While commending the Senate for voting to overturn the FCC’s ruling, Reporters Without Borders noted that the two candidates had expressed different views on the matter, asking whether Senator Obama would continue his stance on voting to limit such cross-media ownership while urging Senator McCain to clarify his "position regarding media ownership and pledge to protect a free, independent and diverse media pool."
The letters condemned the "deplorable treatment" of journalists working in dangerous areas under US control or where the US forces are present, giving examples of journalists who have been wrongfully imprisoned in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In the Press Freedom Index released today, the United States received the separate ranking of 119th for its actions outside its own territory with regard to press freedom. This low position reflects the wrongful detention of dozens of journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years.
Noting "the need for precise care and caution during wartime," the letters said: "Accusations against local reporters suspected of being terrorists cannot be taken lightly. They are too often made because of ignorance of the rules of news gathering. It is imperative that US forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan understand that journalists must be allowed to do their jobs." Both candidates were asked whether they would ensure the halt of arbitrary detention of journalists in US-controlled zones as well allowing "as open and broad coverage as possible." Reporters Without Borders also urged the future US president to defend press freedom in these regions more actively in his diplomacy, beginning with the situation of women reporters in Afghanistan and the need to combat impunity for those who murder journalists in Iraq.
Reporters Without Borders also voiced concerns about equal access to online information and supported efforts to preserve Internet neutrality. "The practice of charging fees for different access speeds for broadband Internet connection undermines the right of people to be informed. Net neutrality is the core concept that has made the Internet the open media forum it is, and it must be protected," the letters said. The organisation called for further progress and clarification on the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, a bill that is currently on the floor of the House of Representatives. This legislation would "balance the need for complete freedom of access for Internet users and to protect them against harmful content on the web." The letters noted that Senator Obama had in the past supported a similar bill whereas Senator McCain "stopped short of supporting net neutrality rules and instead voiced expectations that a free market approach would correct disparities in access to information resulting from a two-tier internet system." Each candidate was asked to clarify and reiterate their positions on net neutrality and the critical legislation that is currently making its way through Congress.
The need for responsible behaviour by US Internet sector companies operating in repressive countries was also stressed. Corporations such as Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google have been accused of violating freedom of expression as recognized by international human rights standards. The personal details of clients that Yahoo! provided to the Chinese authorities allowed them to sentence at least four dissidents to jail, including journalist Shi Tao. Reporters Without Borders asked the candidates whether they supported the Global Online Freedom Act, a bill introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R - NJ) that would seek to protect US companies from being forced to collaborate with repressive regimes’ Internet censors. The bill is currently awaiting a floor vote in the House.
Reporters Without Borders finally noted President Bush’s approval of amendments to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a law that "improved citizens’ access to government documents by promising to offer them in a timely manner and with fewer obstacles." But the organisation regretted that this action occurred "after the administration had already circumvented citizens’ right to access federal documents, the most known example being the series of videos destroyed by the CIA which allegedly showed terrorist suspects being tortured."
Reporters Without Borders also criticized "the secrecy with which the administration has conducted so many of its operations has significantly diminished the public’s confidence in the Executive Office. In the past seven years, the administration has expanded its ability to withhold information in the name of ‘national security’." Each candidate was asked to say he intended to enforce the FOIA if elected.