- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Obama administration’s handling of whistleblower Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency leaks and the investigation of a string of leaks produced a plunge in the country’s rating on press freedoms and government openness, according to a global survey released Tuesday.

The U.S. under President Obama, who once promised to run the “most transparent” administration in the country’s history, fell from 32nd to 46th in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index, a drop of 13 slots. The index, compiled by the press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, analyzes 180 countries on criteria such as official abuse, media independence and infrastructure to determine how free journalists are to report.

Officials of the group said press freedoms were under attack around the world as governments grow increasingly sophisticated in collecting sensitive data and in tracking down those who leak it.

“Journalists are being caught up in what is, I think, fairly characterized as a rapidly growing surveillance apparatus, and this is happening all over the world,” said Geoffrey King, Internet advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In the past years, tactics have shifted from surveillance of individual terrorists and spies to a dragnet approach to control information, Mr. King said.

Delphine Halgand, Reporters Without Borders U.S. director, said three events shaped the climate for reporting in the United States last year: Mr. Snowden’s NSA revelations, the trial of Army Pvt. Bradley Manning for giving a trove of classified documents to WikiLeaks, and the Justice Department’s handling of a probe of The Associated Press and other media organizations suspected of receiving leaked data.

“I hope this revelation will play a wake-up-call role,” Ms. Halgand said.

As a whole, the index’s annual global indicator, or barometer of violations of freedom of information, rose 1.8 percent compared with 2013.

The report found that areas with armed conflict correlate with a low level of freedom of the press. Syria ranked among the worst countries for allowing freedom of the press, alongside authoritarian states such as Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea.

From March 2011 to December 2013, 130 professional and citizen journalists were killed in Syria with connections to distributing news and information. Syria has been dubbed as the world’s most dangerous place for journalists.

“Syria has moved into the worst of the worst,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Freedom House project director of Freedom of the Press. 

Middle East repression

Despite the hopes of the Arab Spring, countries in the Middle East continued to score poorly in the press freedom rankings. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Turkey imprisoned 40 journalists and Iran imprisoned 35 last year.

“Those regimes are systematically hunting down information and those that report and distribute information, and those primarily are journalists,” said Sherif Mansour, the committee’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator.

In August, Egyptian officials arrested John Greyson, a Canadian filmmaker, along with Canadian doctor Tarek Loubani, in Cairo after protests against the government. Mr. Greyson recalled sharing a cell with dozens of men and sleeping on the ground with cockroaches.

“We were riding in a state of shock,” he said.

The Canadian government attained their release after seven weeks. Now, Mr. Greyson campaigns for the government to do the same for Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian journalist who has been imprisoned for more than a month in Cairo.

Several other journalists are also in custody.

“The world is watching, and we’re trying to make as much noise as we can,” Mr. Greyson said.

Ms. Halgand said a theme emerging in this year’s survey is the rise of private nonstate groups posing threats to journalists, what she called a “privatization of violence.” Latin American journalists, for example, have experienced threats from organized crime groups.

Countries falling the furthest from the previous year’s survey included the civil-war-wracked Central African Republic (down 43 spots to 109), Guatemala (down 29 spots) and Kenya (down 18 slots). Four journalists were killed in Guatemala last year alone.

Other countries have risen on the index after declining rates of violence against journalists, censorship and misuse of judicial proceedings. These include Panama (up 25 positions to No. 87), the Dominican Republic (up 13 slots) and Ecuador (gaining 25 positions).

“They are not perfectly safe at all, but we saw some improvement,” Ms. Halgand said.

Finland, the Netherlands and Norway continue to hold the top three spots on the index, and European countries hold the top 16 spots in the 180-nation survey.

But not all European countries registered progress in press freedoms. Ratings for Greece and Hungary fell because of economic crises and increases in nationalistic populism.

“It’s definitely a case that we need continued vigilance on the issues on media freedom and freedom of expression,” Ms. Karlekar said.

• Meghan Drake can be reached at mdrake@washingtontimes.com.

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