When it comes to the freedom in the media, most of us feel fairly secure that in the West, we have laws that protect journalists and allow the free flow of information to the people. However, this is a far more complex issue than most people realize, and one that puts the freedom, and safety, of all journalists at risk. In fact, just this year alone, hundreds of threats and attacks have been directed at the journalistic community.
This surge of censorship and suppression was a motivating factor for the Italian group, Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso and the Censorship Index to team up; creating an interactive map that keeps track of attacks on journalistic rights within Europe.
The Media Freedom Map shows violations by location, and allows readers to toggle between different categories such as limitation of media freedom, verified reports and gender cases.
Each color coded dot on the map represents a report given by a first person journalist, blogger or media worker. Clicking on the reports often gets you a full run down of the event, including sources and names that verify the event. For instance, clicking on one at random, I see that on June 12, two photographers were beaten by the police outside the Ministry of Finance building in Athens. This was verified and included female and male photographers who were covering a protest of low-wage workers.
Plenty of short hand accounts inhabit the map, including threats from governments to ‘watch over’ or ‘monitor’ publications. However, monumental court cases for journalistic rights are also covered. When Finish photojournalist Markus Pentikainen was arrested and detained for covering a protest, he decided to fight back. With the support of his fellow photojournalists, he took Finland to the European Court of Human Rights. The ECHR will hear Pentikainen’s case in their grand chambers this year.
Nearby in Denmark, two journalists were arrested and convicted for publishing the names of 12 pig farmers who were responsible for spreading MRSA, a deadly bacteria. Their report apparently violated Denmark’s law on data protection, but their lawyer argued that, ’there is public interest in openness about a growing health hazard.’ Although the journalists beat the 6 month jail sentence, they were still forced to pay fines. This ruling has been seen as a step back for freedom of the press, especially when public health is concerned.
Over in the USA, things aren’t much better. When Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist James Risen’s book, “State of War,” revealed confidential information about the United States’ collusion with Iran, his freedom was put in jeopardy. The alleged informant, Jeffrey Sterling, was taken to court for espionage and Risen was called to testify against him. Risen has refused, and although he’s been threatened with jail, he continues to stand firm that he would rather go to prison than break his journalistic ethics.
The case of Josh Wolf in California also brought to light to how journalists protecting source material can suffer. While covering an anti-G8 protest, he shot video of a policeman choking a protester and another threatening the use of stun guns. When the police asked him to turn over his source material, he refused. The police cited damaged property as part of an investigation on protesters (the damaged property was a tail light). When Wolf still refused, he spent 225 days in jail on contempt, the longest time served by any journalist in America. It later came to light that Wolf had no footage of the damaged police vehicle.
The Society of Professional Journalists has documented a number of these cases, and advocates for federal protection for journalistic ethics. They state, “in 2006 alone journalists were served with more than 7,200 subpoenas from state and local governments, and about 800 from the federal government. Some news organizations are served more than 25 times a year.”
Although they support the current Journalist Shield Law in Congress, SPJ notes it falls short of some necessary protections, and even opens the door to regulating journalism further. This is because while the Journalist Shield Law seeks to protect journalists from having to reveal their sources on a national level, unless the journalist is defined by old-media standards, they are exempt from protection.
SPJ reports that they’d do better to define acts of ‘journalism’ rather than the journalist as, “Once a ‘journalist’ is defined then before long the government might start raising the idea of licensing journalists, which can lead to a form of censorship that is found in other countries.”
Looking at the broad scope of attacks on journalists in the West, it becomes very clear that better regulations need to be put in place. Freedom of speech is not freedom to say whatever you want without condemnation; it’s the freedom to express beliefs and ideas without unwarranted government restriction. And it seems pretty clear, from where we stand now, that right is under considerable attack.