On Tuesday, Reporters Without Borders released its annual World Press Freedom Index. The usual suspects — repressive regimes in Eritrea, North Korea, Turkmenistan and Syria — were named as the worst places for press freedom. Conversely, the usual exemplars — Western European and Scandinavian nations Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and Luxembourg — were beacons.
As for the United States, which enshrines the need for a free press into its Constitution? It tumbled 13 spots to 46th out of 180 nations. The steep drop “served as a reminder of the urgent need for a ‘shield law’ to protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources at the federal level,” the report stated.
Washington shouldn’t need Reporters Without Borders to remind Congress and President Obama that there is unfinished work to do to ensure press freedom in America. In fact, lawmakers can look back home, since 49 states and the District of Columbia already have shield laws.
It’s well past time for Congress to pass, and President Obama to sign, the “Free Flow of Information Act.” It’s already been cleared by the Senate Judiciary Committee. And Obama has already signaled support after it was revealed last year that the Justice Department had seized Associated Press phone records without warning.
The bill would codify rules to protect journalists against government requirements to divulge confidential sources. If it is enacted, the federal government would have to prove to a judge an imperative to get the information that is being sought by a subpoena. While no bill is perfect, compromises on common concerns raised from both sides should spur passage.
First, the bill would not compromise national security. It does not “shield” terrorists or others who might try to bend the law to their purposes. And it would not necessarily apply to organizations like WikiLeaks.
For their part, many journalists have been rightfully concerned about the law having a too-narrow definition of a journalist or journalism. Those definitions are especially important in an ever-evolving media environment that sees journalism practiced in nontraditional ways by nontraditional journalists.
The Society of Professional Journalists has accepted the bill’s compromise language. But SPJ President David Cuillier notes that the Free Flow of Information Act is less about journalists, and more about citizens.
Without federal protection, “there will be more corruption, more coverups,” Cuillier told an editorial writer. “That’s what it’s all about. The citizen loses out in the end, not journalists.”
As the Reporters Without Borders report suggests, citizens who depend on a free press have been losing ground in America. Knowledge of that should unite a divided Washington to take action.