The United States’ Press Freedom Problem Goes Beyond Ferguson

Police advance through smoke in Ferguson, Mo. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JEFF ROBERSON
Police advance through smoke in Ferguson, Mo. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JEFF ROBERSON

Journalists forcibly removed from covering a story. Facing down tear gas and hostile police. Finding themselves under arrest. It’s a situation that is supposed to happen in other countries, not the United States. But last night in Ferguson, MO, journalists found themselves facing exactly those conditions, lending credence to the fact that the United States — despite all its support in its laws and customs — does not top the world’s rankings in terms of freedom of the press.

Two DC-based reporters, the Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly and the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery, were working in a McDonald’s near the scene of the protests that have become a nightly event in Ferguson when police officers entered the restaurants and demanded they leave. In taking too long to do so, the two reported after the fact, the police chose to place them both under arrest. “As they took me into custody, the officers slammed me into a soda machine, at one point setting off the Coke dispenser,” Lowrey wrote in his account of the confrontation. “They put plastic cuffs on me, then they led me out the door.” Both were later released with no charges — but also with no police report filed and the St. Louis police department refusing to give the names of the officers who arrested them.

The outrage over how the two reporters were treated has already managed to go international. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which the United States is a part of, issued a statement in the name of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, on Thursday. “Summarily rounding up journalists while they are doing their jobs sends a dangerous precedent and must never be condoned,” Mijatović said. “Journalists have the right to report on public demonstrations without being intimated by the police.”

Other journalists faced similar problems throughout the night, including being caught in waves of teargas and rubber bullets launched at protesters and being forced to take down cameras set-up to record the police’s actions. Earlier this week, the Federal Aviation Adminstration at the request of the St. Louis police department issued a no-fly zone over Ferguson, preventing news helicopters from utilizing the airspace. That sort of treatment is outside the norm of the experience of most reporters, but despite its comparative amount of press freedom, the U.S. doesn’t receive top marks over how much leeway journalists are given to operate.


International NGO Reporters Without Borders puts out an annual review of countries’ treatment of journalists. Assigning scores from 0 to 100, where 0 is absolute freedom and 100 absolute repression, the group ranks the countries under examination. In the years that Reporters Without Borders has been undertaking this project, the United States has never been at the top, instead vacillating somewhere in the mid-twenties and low forties. In their latest report, Reporters Without Borders ranked the United States as number 46 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom.

This positioning lines up the rankings put forward from another NGO, Freedom House, whose Freedom of the Press report “measures the level of media independence in 197 countries and territories.” In this year’s rankings, the United States was tied for 30th place with Micronesia and Austria. Though the rankings are comparative and not absolute and the methodology for Reporters Without Borders’ rankings varies from year to year, as Max Fisher — then of the Washington Post and now at Vox — pointed out, the overall conclusion that the United States is not the paragon of press freedom remains the same.

Though the treatment of journalists at the hands of the police is troubling, most of the concern that international groups dealing with press freedom have with the U.S. is how the government responds to what it views as national security concerns. “Rather than pursuing journalists, the emphasis has been on going after their sources, but often using the journalist to identify them,” Reporters Without Borders’ 2014 report reads. “No fewer that eight individuals have been charged under the Espionage Act since Obama became president, compared with three during Bush’s two terms.” The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which tracks abuses committed against reporters worldwide, also found that press freedom in the U.S. “dramatically deteriorated in 2013.” Like Reporters Without Borders, CPJ focused on the backlash against the government’s handling of leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and subpoenaing the Associated Press’ phone records.

The U.N. Human Rights Council has the mandate to conduct a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to ensure that all member states are upholding their commitment to human rights, including the freedom of expression. “The United States has a free, thriving, and diverse independent press — a feature that existed before the advent of electronic and digital media and that continues today,” the U.S. wrote in its submitted materials to the Council ahead of its most recent UPR. Only one country — Venezuela, which has its own issues with press freedom — suggested that the U.S. repeal “the norms that limit freedom of expression and require journalists to reveal their sources, under penalty of imprisonment.”


This post has been updated to added the condemnation of the OSCE.