USA: RSF’s questions for the candidates in the Republican presidential debate
The first Republican debate of the 2024 presidential election is scheduled for August 23, 2023 in Milwaukee, WI and will be broadcast by Fox News. Reporters without Borders (RSF) won’t be in the room, but here are the questions about press freedom that RSF would ask the candidates.
Would you drop the charges against Julian Assange?
Background: Julian Assange is facing extradition from the United Kingdom (UK) to the United States (US) to face charges related to the WikiLeaks publication of classified materials in 2010. These included diplomatic cables and documents related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Much of this information, such as evidence of war crimes being committed in the infamous Collateral Murder video, was in the public interest.
In pursuing Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, the US government is making unprecedented use of the Espionage Act against a publisher. If Assange is convicted under the Espionage Act, this case could open the door to future prosecutions against any publisher, news outlet, journalist, or source, setting an incredibly dangerous precedent for press freedom. The president has the power to drop these charges and free Julian Assange, who has already served over four years in the UK’s maximum security Belmarsh prison.
Would you sign the PRESS Act into law?
Background: The United States currently lacks a federal press shield law, which would protect journalists from being compelled by law enforcement to reveal their sources. Confidentiality of sources is a foundational element of good investigative reporting. While most states have their own versions of press shield laws, the current legal patchwork is often confusing and counterproductive. The PRESS Act came very close to passing in 2022. It once again cleared the House in July 2023 and currently awaits consideration in the Senate.
Would you maintain the Executive Order prohibiting the use of commercial spyware that is used to hack the devices of journalists?
Background: Commercial spyware, such as NSO Group’s Pegasus, has been used by governments to hack the phones of journalists around the world, notably in Mexico, Saudi Arabia, India, Morocco, and Azerbaijan. Pegasus itself was used to hack the phone of Jamal Khashoggi’s wife in the leadup to his brutal murder in 2018 by the Saudi regime.
On March 23, 2023, President Biden signed an Executive Order prohibiting government use of commercial spyware that doesn’t meet certain stringent requirements. Moreover, the order signals a broader policy that rightly treats the use of commercial spyware as a threat to both national security and the rights of all citizens.
What would you do to bring home wrongly detained American journalists Evan Gershkovich in Russia and Austin Tice in Syria?
Background: Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was detained by Russia’s Federal Security Service on March 29, 2023, and accused of espionage. Both the Wall Street Journal and the US government vehemently deny this accusation, and President Biden has insisted his administration will do everything possible to bring Evan home. Should Evan still be held beyond Biden’s time in office, this commitment must transcend partisan politics and continue to be a priority for the next administration.
Meanwhile, Austin Tice has been held in Syria since August 14, 2012. Despite strong words from President Biden marking the 10th anniversary of the American journalist’s abduction, very little apparent progress has been made, and a fresh approach that puts all options on the table is needed –including direct negotiations with the Syrian government. Austin is the longest held American journalist in history.
How would you make yourself available to the press as President?
Background: Recent administrations of both parties have been criticized for their lack of availability to a diverse range of media. While opportunities for direct communication with the American people have proliferated thanks to social media, they are not a substitute for regular media access and press scrutiny. This includes regular briefings with the White House press corps which allow for questions directly to the president, even from sources that may be critical. Further, any administration should treat members of the media with respect and dignity. Anything less only grows distrust in the media, weakens our democracy, and imperils the safety of all journalists.
The first contest of the primary season will be the Iowa caucus on January 15, 2024. RSF will continue to monitor the election process in order to engage the parties and candidates to ensure that the nonpartisan American values of press freedom are upheld and strengthened. The United States is ranked 45th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2023 World Press Freedom Index.