United States - Reporters without Borders urges presidential candidates to pledge to better protect press freedom

    US ranked 36th in World Press Freedom Index released today

    MONTREAL, Oct. 23 /CNW Telbec/ - Reporters Without Borders today released
the text of the letters it sent on 8 September to presidential candidates
Barack Obama and John McCain urging them to provide better protection for
freedom of the press and to announce concrete steps to guarantee the American
people's right to be informed.
    "Journalists are guardians of democracy whose rights must be protected
around the world, not least in the United States, to which emerging
democracies look for guidance, and where free speech is an inalienable right
explicitly protected by the Constitution," Reporters Without Borders said.
    "Regrettably, this is far from being the case and there is still much to
accomplish. The United States ranks now 36th out of 173 countries in the 2008
Press Freedom Index which Reporters Without Borders released today, meriting
only a 'satisfactory' grade, despite an improvement from last year (when it
was 44th out of 169 countries).
    "This situation is unacceptable for the country known for its First
Amendment rights. We are asking the candidates to let the American people know
how they will improve this ranking and improve access to information for their
fellow Americans. In times of important political decisions and economic
crisis, the American people need more than ever to have access to accurate and
diverse information in order to make sound decisions."
    In its letters to the presidential campaigns, Reporters Without Borders
raised the issues of impunity in the murder of Californian newspaper editor
Chauncey Bailey, better protection for reporters' sources, access to more
diverse news and information, Internet neutrality, and the treatment of
journalists working in areas under US control in Iraq and Afghanistan. By
writing to the candidates, Reporters Without Borders hopes to gain insight
into their views on these pressing matters as well as to learn how they would
help to improve the status of press freedom at home and abroad if elected.
    Reporters Without Borders noted the historical nature of this
presidential election, which has change and a new direction for the United
States as its central theme, and which offers an exciting opportunity to
reinforce the important role of a free press in the United States.
    The letters said: "We look to your administration for change from the
policies of secrecy, ambiguity and avoidance that have hampered the work of a
free press. We are also hopeful that as President you will champion the cause
of press freedom and denounce its abuses everywhere, whether those abuses are
committed by friends or foes." It added: "Recent years have proven that even
in the United States, where we take pride in guarantees of personal freedoms
including freedom of expression and press, those rights are nonetheless
vulnerable to incursion if we are not vigilant and active in protecting them."

    The issues at stake

    Reporters Without Borders raised the case of Chauncey Bailey, the Oakland
Post editor who was murdered for his work as an investigative journalist on
2 August 2007. The investigation has been marred by local conflicts of
interests and impunity reigns. Reporters Without Borders asked both candidates
if they would support an independent investigation by the Attorney General
into Bailey's murder. "The justice system has to send a strong signal to those
who want to silence the media, and show them that impunity will not prevail,"
the letters said. "Those responsible for the murder as well as those
protecting them must be brought to justice. This is unlikely to happen unless
this becomes a federal case."
    Reporters Without Borders also voiced its concerns about the
confidentiality of sources, calling it "a cornerstone of investigative
journalism (that) must be respected" or else "the ability of the media to find
and provide information to the public as members of civil society is
undermined." The letters gave concrete examples of journalists sentenced by
federal courts to prison terms or fines after refusing to reveal sources, and
described legislation that would help to protect journalists from imprisonment
for not revealing their sources, including the Free Flow of Information Act,
which passed in the House of Representatives on 16 October 2007. The letters
asked the two candidates whether they would protect reporters' sources and
support a bill that would include a less limited definition of "the
information that is protected by the privilege of reporters and those defined
as journalists in the Senate and House versions of the bill."
    On the issues of news diversity and media ownership, the letters voiced
concern about the FCC's recent decision to relax restrictions on the expansion
of news conglomerates. While commending the Senate for voting to overturn the
FCC's ruling, Reporters Without Borders noted that the two candidates had
expressed different views on the matter, asking whether Senator Obama would
continue his stance on voting to limit such cross-media ownership while urging
Senator McCain to clarify his "position regarding media ownership and pledge
to protect a free, independent and diverse media pool."
    The letters condemned the "deplorable treatment" of journalists working
in dangerous areas under US control or where the US forces are present, giving
examples of journalists who have been wrongfully imprisoned in both Iraq and
Afghanistan. In the Press Freedom Index released today, the United States
received the separate ranking of 119th for its actions outside its own
territory with regard to press freedom. This low position reflects the
wrongful detention of dozens of journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent
    Noting "the need for precise care and caution during wartime," the
letters said: "Accusations against local reporters suspected of being
terrorists cannot be taken lightly. They are too often made because of
ignorance of the rules of news gathering. It is imperative that US forces in
both Iraq and Afghanistan understand that journalists must be allowed to do
their jobs." Both candidates were asked whether they would ensure the halt of
arbitrary detention of journalists in US-controlled zones as well allowing "as
open and broad coverage as possible." Reporters Without Borders also urged the
future US president to defend press freedom in these regions more actively in
his diplomacy, beginning with the situation of women reporters in Afghanistan
and the need to combat impunity for those who murder journalists in Iraq.
    Reporters Without Borders also voiced concerns about equal access to
online information and supported efforts to preserve Internet neutrality. "The
practice of charging fees for different access speeds for broadband Internet
connection undermines the right of people to be informed. Net neutrality is
the core concept that has made the Internet the open media forum it is, and it
must be protected," the letters said. The organisation called for further
progress and clarification on the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, a bill
that is currently on the floor of the House of Representatives. This
legislation would "balance the need for complete freedom of access for
Internet users and to protect them against harmful content on the web." The
letters noted that Senator Obama had in the past supported a similar bill
whereas Senator McCain "stopped short of supporting net neutrality rules and
instead voiced expectations that a free market approach would correct
disparities in access to information resulting from a two-tier internet
system." Each candidate was asked to clarify and reiterate their positions on
net neutrality and the critical legislation that is currently making its way
through Congress.
    The need for responsible behaviour by US Internet sector companies
operating in repressive countries was also stressed. Corporations such as
Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google have been accused of violating
freedom of expression as recognized by international human rights standards.
The personal details of clients that Yahoo! provided to the Chinese
authorities allowed them to sentence at least four dissidents to jail,
including journalist Shi Tao. Reporters Without Borders asked the candidates
whether they supported the Global Online Freedom Act, a bill introduced by
Rep. Chris Smith (R - NJ) that would seek to protect US companies from being
forced to collaborate with repressive regimes' Internet censors. The bill is
currently awaiting a floor vote in the House.
    Reporters Without Borders finally noted President Bush's approval of
amendments to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a law that "improved
citizens' access to government documents by promising to offer them in a
timely manner and with fewer obstacles." But the organisation regretted that
this action occurred "after the administration had already circumvented
citizens' right to access federal documents, the most known example being the
series of videos destroyed by the CIA which allegedly showed terrorist
suspects being tortured."
    Reporters Without Borders also criticized "the secrecy with which the
administration has conducted so many of its operations has significantly
diminished the public's confidence in the Executive Office. In the past seven
years, the administration has expanded its ability to withhold information in
the name of 'national security'." Each candidate was asked to say he intended
to enforce the FOIA if elected.

For further information:

For further information: Katherine Borlongan, secretary general,
Reporters Without Borders, (514) 521-4111, Cell: (514) 258-4188, Fax: (514)
521-7771, rsfcanada@rsf.org

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