Secretary of State Antony Blinken marked World Press Freedom Day by calling attention to governments that are “becoming less transparent” and “more repressive.”
“Some governments incarcerate journalists, harass them, target them for violence,” Blinken stated. “Some use other, more subtle [methods] like mandating professional licenses for journalists and using endless bureaucracy to keep them out of reach, or imposing high taxes on newsprint to push independent media out of business.”
Blinken’s comments entirely ignored press freedom in the United States and instead focused on countries like China, Russia, Pakistan, Venezuela, Turkey, Hungary, and “third world countries” in Africa and Central Asia. Yet, he could have been describing his country.
In 2020, 416 journalists were assaulted. One hundred and thirty-nine journalists were arrested or detained. One hundred and nine journalists had their equipment damaged. Thirty-one journalists or news organizations were subpoenaed, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker curated by the Freedom of the Press Foundation and several other leading press freedom organizations.
On average, the police kill about three men per day (or 1,000 people each year). Only a small fraction of these killings result in uprisings, but when they do, journalists face repression from local police forces and city governments that decline to intervene.
Journalist Linda Tirado lost an eye in 2020 while covering the uprising after George Floyd was murdered.
After Kim Potter, a white police officer in Minnesota, killed a 20 year-old black man named Daunte Wright, journalists were attacked with “crowd control” munitions. A CNN team complained of assault and harassment. Two reporters with the Minnesota-based social media news outlet Neighborhood Reporter were detained.
Several Minneapolis Star-Tribune journalists were assaulted by police: reporter Andy Mannix was hit by a “less-lethal” munition in his foot, photojournalist Mark Vancleave’s hand was injured by a rubber bullet, and photojournalist Carlos Gonzalez was pepper-sprayed.
During the first 100 days of President Joe Biden’s administration, the White House has failed to take any meaningful action that would bolster First Amendment rights and improve press freedom in the United States.
The Knight First Amendment Institute put forward a “First Amendment agenda” for the Biden administration in December. Of the 12 items, just three were completed.
Biden’s administration released the report from the Director of National Intelligence’s office on the role of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi.
Sanctions on International Criminal Court investigators were lifted on April 2. They were levied by former President Donald Trump in retaliation for an inquiry into war crimes in Afghanistan, and violated the First Amendment by “impeding U.S. citizens and residents from engaging in protected advocacy and association,” according to the Knight Institute.
A Trump executive order targeting “diversity training” in the workplace, which encouraged “viewpoint-based discrimination” when federal contracts were awarded, was overturned as well.
However, the Biden Justice Department continues to target journalists and their sources with the U.S. Espionage Act.
Attorney General Merrick Garland has allowed the extradition case to proceed against former WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange.
Assange has been detained at the Belmarsh high-security prison in London for more than two years, and every reputable press freedom organization recognizes the case poses a distinct threat to journalism.
For example, Reporters Without Borders international campaigns director Rebecca Vincent pointed out, “If the U.S. government is successful in securing Assange’s extradition and prosecuting him for his contributions to public interest reporting, the same precedent could be applied to any journalist anywhere. The possible implications of this case simply cannot be understated. It is the very future of journalism and press freedom that is at stake.”
“It is clearly politically motivated and intended to make an example of Assange and create a chilling effect on media around the world,” Vincent added.
Furthermore, instead of abandoning the prosecution launched under Trump, the Biden Justice Department secured a guilty plea from Daniel Hale, a former military contractor and drone whistleblower.
Hale helped expose the targeted assassination program, including drone warfare. He pled guilty on March 31 to one charge of violating the Espionage Act, when he provided documents to Intercept co-founder Jeremy Scahill and anonymously wrote a chapter in Scahill’s book, The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program.
Astonishingly, prosecutors refused to dismiss additional charges and cancel the trial altogether. Hale is set to be sentenced in July, and if prosecutors are not pleased with the severity of the sentence, they can continue to target an unemployed military veteran already coping with mental health problems.
NSA whistleblower Reality Winner and FBI whistleblower Terry Albury remain in prison after the Trump administration prosecuted them under the Espionage Act. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden lives in exile in Russia as the government maintains their prosecution, even seizing profits from his memoir and any speaking engagements.
The Biden administration has done nothing to rein in policies that allow Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers to engage in suspicionless searches of travelers’ electronic devices in violation of both the First and Fourth Amendments.
On February 9, 2021, the First Circuit appeals court overturned a district court decision and claimed “reasonable suspicion is not required before a border agent can conduct a basic search,” according to the Knight Institute, which filed the lawsuit. They also contended “probable cause is not required before a border agent can conduct an advanced search.”
Between 2006 and June 2018, according to a report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), “37 journalists were stopped collectively for secondary screenings more than 110 times.”
“Many of the 37 cases identified for this report were among journalists who travel to the Middle East or report on terrorism or national security—all factors that increase the likelihood of being stopped,” CPJ added. “Arabs, Muslims, and individuals of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent face increased scrutiny at the border, according to the ACLU and other civil liberties organizations.”
Canadian journalist Ed Ou traveled to the U.S. to cover the protests at Standing Rock in October 2016. He was questioned about his interest in indigenous groups. An officer even said “covering a protest is not a valid reason to come into the country.”
Ou worked in authoritarian countries previously and secured all his electronics before traveling to those countries. However, he was not prepared to do this in a “liberal democracy like the U.S., which claims to protect press freedoms and freedom of expression.”
In another lawsuit by the Knight Institute, the Biden administration is defending a prepublication review system former government employees, especially those who work in security agencies, must submit to in order to publish books. It frequently employs arbitrary and politically driven censorship to suppress content that could embarrass the U.S. government.
Mark Fallon, a former Naval Criminal Investigative Service employee, is a plaintiff, and he waited almost eight months for a review of his book about torture policies under President George W. Bush to be completed. A letter had to be sent to six senators. Numerous requests for updates were sent. Fallon went to the press, and the ACLU and Knight Institute got involved before a review was completed.
The registration requirement imposes unjustifiable burdens on the expressive and associational rights of visa applicants, as well as on the rights of U.S. citizens and residents who communicate and associate with them. The Biden administration should rescind the State Department’s social media registration requirement and reject proposals to extend the requirement.
The State Department continued a Trump policy that requires social media registration for visa applicants. Rather than ditch the policy immediately, the Biden administration launched a review of the State Department and Homeland Security Department’s collection of social media information from such applicants.
“We call on all governments to ensure media safety and protect journalists’ ability to do their jobs without fear of violence, threats, or unjust detention,” Blinken separately declared in a press release marking World Press Freedom Day.
Already in 2021, twenty-nine journalists have been arrested or detained in the U.S. Thirty-five journalists have faced assaults. Seven have had their equipment damaged.
If Blinken and other officials want any of these pronouncements to be taken seriously, they should stop lecturing other countries and address clear and present threats to press freedom in the United States.