2020 RSF Index: Troubling trends persist in North America despite region’s improvements

The 2020 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index shows that troubling trends continued throughout North America, despite a slight overall improvement. Moving into the new decade, it is urgent that the United States restores its role as a champion of the free press at home and abroad in order for it to be considered a leading democracy.

Across North America, journalists and news outlets face verbal and physical attacks, access denials, and legislation and prosecutions that limit their rights. Press freedom in the United States continues to suffer under President Donald Trump, but after three years of consistent falls the country returned to 45th in the 2020 Index (up three since last year) and now teeters on the edge of countries with a “satisfactory situation.” Hostility toward journalists and news outlets in the United States deepened and intensified, and few attacks were as vitriolic as those that came from the president. The abuse is only getting worse amid the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, as journalists covering the Trump administration’s response to the crisis are subjected to the president’s attacks during his press briefings. Despite a rise in the 2020 Index, Canada (16th, +2) had a mixed record, with access denials and court rulings that both hindered and helped journalists’ rights.

Harassment and threats persist

Public denigration, threats, and harassment of journalists continued to be a serious problem in the United States. As in years past, President Trump regularly targeted journalists and news outlets throughout 2019 with ad hominem attacks and claims of “fake news.” This phrase, popularized by President Trump dating back to his campaign for presidency, has now been deployed by leaders around the world as a tool to crack down on the media.

The harassment of journalists by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents at US ports of entry, is a growing trend in the past two years. One journalist said he was unduly questioned about his reporting on President Trump while another was accused by a border officer of being a “liar” who was “attacking [American] democracy.” Even in Jamaica (6th, +2) , the highest ranked country in North America, the prime minister borrowed from President Trump’s playbook when he attempted to sow public distrust by telling political supporters the press doesn’t always report facts and urging them to refer to his social media pages for reliable information.

In the United States in 2019, local governments, religious leaders and the American public demonstrated a growing hostility toward the press and physical attacks persisted. However, the violence was nowhere near as severe as it was in 2018—when a gunman killed five employees at the Capital Gazette in Maryland—and the overall number of reported physical assaults in the United States was lower in 2019 than in the previous two years, according to the US Press Freedom Tracker. Yet journalists were assaulted across the country, including at protests, Trump rallies, and state and federal legislative buildings. Federal authorities arrested a US Army soldier and a Coast Guard lieutenant who were plotting separate violent attacks on major US media outlets and reporters.

Retaliation and access denials

The rise in reported access denials in the United States in 2019 took place in states across the country, and the federal authorities in both the United States and Canada attempted to keep reporters from covering contentious issues. Local and state governments everywhere from New Jersey to Kansas restricted press access to events or meetings of public interest, and some introduced rules that would limit the types of coverage permitted in municipal buildings, such as in Vermont and Arkansas. The Trump administration did not set a better example. The once-daily televised White House press briefing with a press secretary stopped taking place in March 2019 and was replaced primarily by President Trump’s paparazzi-style “chopper talks” in front of Air Force One or Marine One, allowing the president to limit and control the time he will spend taking questions. Trump administration officials also attempted to revoke a White House correspondent’s press pass in August 2019 and banned press pool members from high-level meetings.

In March 2019 reporting showed that the US government was keeping a secret database of journalists, activists and others to stop for secondary-screenings and questioning at checkpoints along the US-Mexico border around the time a migrant caravan had arrived from Honduras. Journalists on this list were detained, forced to show border officers the contents of their reporting materials or identify individuals who had been at the border.

In Canada, political staffers for two indigenous tribes physically obstructed female indigenous reporters who attempted to interview tribal leaders. Separately, the federal police blocked press access during an environmental protest on indigenous land. Months later, a March 2019 landmark court decision affirmed that journalists have a right to cover such protests and noted the importance of media coverage for indigenous issues.

Testing the limits of press freedom

The Trump administration continued its aggressive crackdown on whistleblowers in 2019, prosecuting three government employees under the WWI-Espionage Act for giving journalists classified information. And in an unprecedented move, the US Justice Department charged Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange with 18 counts, including 17 under the Espionage Act, marking the first time the agency has charged someone with espionage for publishing classified documents. If Assange is extradited from the United Kingdom and found guilty under the Espionage Act in the United States, the ruling could create a new and dangerous legal precedent allowing for the criminal prosecution of journalists for doing their constitutionally-protected jobs.    

Canada's federal "shield law," which was adopted in 2017, was tested for the first time in September 2019, reaffirming journalists' rights to withhold the identities of their confidential sources in court. Unfortunately the shield law does not apply to the protection of confidential materials, such as communications. This was spotlighted in July 2019, when a court ruled that a VICE Canada reporter must divulge his confidential communications with a source to the federal police. This ruling has dangerous implications for journalistic independence, as reporters are not meant to be investigative arms of law enforcement, and depend on trustworthy source relationships to do their jobs effectively.

While the United States does not have a federal “shield law,” most states have their own statutes to ensure journalists are not forced to disclose their confidential sources. In May 2019, San Francisco police acted in violation of California’s “shield law” when they raided the home of freelance journalist Bryan Carmody and seized his reporting materials in an effort to uncover his confidential source. Judges eventually quashed the police’s search warrants, deeming them illegal under this law.

What lies ahead

Moving into the new decade, the nations that comprise the North America region should prioritize policies and practices that improve press freedom and ensure journalists’ safety. In the United States, newly-elected public officials should champion policies such as a federal “shield law” and reform of the Espionage Act that prohibits the prosecution of journalists and allows for a public interest defense for whistleblowers. In spite of measures taken against the press on indigenous territory, Canada, which co-founded the Media Freedom Coalition in partnership with the United Kingdom in July 2019, is proving a leader in global press protections. Caribbean nations like Trinidad and Tobago (26th, +3) and Jamaica introduced legislation in 2019 that could potentially harm press protections, and moving forward should revise these laws and ensure future legislation avoids infringing on media freedom.

Journalists and news outlets around the United States in 2019 had been preparing for potential violence and unrest leading up to the 2020 elections, but with the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the United States and throughout the world, the media’s concerns have evolved. Governments, authorities and private institutions in the United States and across North America have a responsibility to allow the press to cover this pandemic and its impact on everyday life, and to allow scientists, medical workers and government employees to speak to the press on these critical issues without infringement.

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Updated on 20.04.2021