Reporters Without Borders: Extending the Frontiers of Press Freedom

Reporters Without Borders: Extending the Frontiers of Press Freedom

Reporters Without Borders: Extending the Frontiers of Press Freedom

The free exchange of information has always been under attack all over the world. Thirty years ago, four journalists decided to form an organization whose sole mission was to keep track of these attacks and do whatever was within their power to fight back.

     
Reporters Without Borders: Extending the Frontiers of Press Freedom
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It's likely you heard about the murders of reporters James Foley and Steven Sotloff, considering that the jihadist group ISIS calculated the killings to get maximum press coverage, circulating video of the beheadings to media as part of a "message to America" in response to U.S. military intervention in Iraq.

What you probably don't know is that Foley was the 47th journalist killed in the line of duty 2014. Or that Irshad Mastol and Abdul Rasool were shot dead in their offices for reporting on conflict in Pakistan in between the murders of Foley and Sotloff. Or that over 350 journalists have been imprisoned around the world this year for attempting to exercise a freedom so essential to freedom that it is forever enshrined in the very First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.

These numbers come by way of Reporters Without Borders, whose five-point mission is "to continuously monitor attacks on freedom of information worldwide; to denounce any such attacks in the media; to act in cooperation with governments to fight censorship and laws aimed at restricting freedom of information; to morally and financially assist persecuted journalists, as well as their families; [and] to offer material assistance to war correspondents in order to enhance their safety."

Founded in 1985 by French journalists Robert Ménard, Rémy Loury, Jacques Molénat, and Émilien Jubineau, today the nonprofit Reporters Without Borders has correspondents in 150 countries and issues more than 1,000 press releases each year concerning various violations of the freedom of information. Each press release is posted online in six languages— French, English, Spanish, Farsi, Russian and Chinese—so that people around the world can be kept aware of actors attempting to stymie press freedom.

The non-governmental, non-partisan nature of Reporters Without Borders is well reflected by the diversity represented by its Emeritus Board, composed of human-rights and free-expression activists from not only France but also Iran, Spain, Poland, Haiti, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Italy, China, Bosnia, Argentina, Mali, and Nigeria.

With its only bias in favor of press freedom, Reporters Without Borders compiles an annual World Press Freedom Index, which ranks 180 countries relative to each other in terms of the freedom of information and highlights trends within each country.

While some what is documented in the World Press Freedom Index 2014 is expected—for example, that there is a negative correlation between armed conflict and the freedom of information—Reporters Without Borders monitors more subtle incursions on press freedom.  The most dramatic example is right here in the United States.

"Freedom of information is too often sacrificed to an overly broad and abusive interpretation of national security needs, marking a disturbing retreat from democratic practices. Investigative journalism often suffers as a result," the group says. "This has been the case in the United States (46th), which fell 13 places, one of the most significant declines, amid increased efforts to track down whistleblowers and the sources of leaks."

Those efforts have included invoking the Espionage Act eight times—more than twice as many as in the pre-Obama history of the United States—and even going after journalists, leading New York Times reporter James Risen to label Obama "the greatest enemy of press freedom that we have encountered in at least a generation." As Accuracy in Media's Roger Arnoff notes, "The Obama administration’s war on journalists who print leaked national security information is ongoing, with months of journalists’ phone records subpoenaed, their movements tracked, and their emails invaded. In one case, Fox News journalist James Rosen was even named as a possible 'co-conspirator' with leaker Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, who pleaded guilty to the charges against him."

But traditional press outlets are not the only media with which Reporters Without Borders is concerned. With the 21st-century rise of the Internet as a flourishing journalistic force, Reporters Without Borders has expanded its auspices to include "netizens," online journalists and bloggers who are increasingly finding themselves the targets of governments inimical to free expression on the World Wide Web—a medium especially important in countries where tradition media is state-controlled.

Moreover, Reports Without Borders does not confine itself to speaking out against only the most severe means of oppression such as violence and imprisonment. For example, a recent press release concerns a defamation ruling in Cambodia against Phnom Penh-based British journalist and blogger Rupert Winchester for a blog article about the need to protect Cambodia’s architectural heritage.

"In a country where the ruling Cambodian People’s Party controls most of the broadcast and print media," says the organization, "independent journalists and netizens have until now been free to post information and express views on the Internet, but for how much longer? [… T]his ruling […] is a sad reminder of how little importance the Cambodian justice systems gives to freedom of information.”

Since 1992, Reporters Without Borders has awarded an annual Press Freedom Prize to both individual journalists and news media organizations "that have made a significant contribution to the defence and promotion of press freedom." Beginning in 2010, the organization partnered with Google to award an additional award, the Netizen Prize, to "a user, blogger or cyber-dissident who has distinguished himself through investigative reporting, projects or other initiatives which has helped advance online freedom of information and which is likely to inspire fellow netizens around the world."

According to William Echikson, head of Free Expression for Europe, Africa and Middle-East at Google, currently 40 countries engage in Internet censorship, a 900% increase from a decade ago. And with one in three Internet users suffering restricted Web access due to government censorship, filtering, or online surveillance, Google's partnership with Reporters Without Borders isn't hard to understand.

"Our products […] have been blocked in more than 25 of the approximately 150 countries where we offer our services," Echikson notes. "Initiatives such as the Netizen Prize shine a light on those who stand up in support for online free expression. […] Around the world, bloggers and cyber-dissidents are jailed for expressing their views. Reporters Without Borders makes sure their struggles are not forgotten."

Vietnamese blogger Huynh Ngoc Chenh, the 2013 recipient of the Netizen Prize, is a case in point. Working within a country that Reporters Without Borders ranks in the bottom 10 of all countries worldwide in terms of press freedom, Chenh's postings on such subjects as democracy, human rights, and territorial disputes between Vietnam and China are monitored by the police and have attracted numerous threats from the authorities. Nonetheless, Chenh continues to criticize the government and champions freedom of expression, attracting 15,000 readers per day despite the fact that readers must use special software to circumvent governmental censorship.

“[The Netizen Prize] represents an inspiration to me as well as for all bloggers, independent journalists in Vietnam, those who face the restrictions about the right of freedom of expression,” said Chenh upon receiving the prize. “It demonstrates the world community’s support and will make us more audacious in raising our concerns and continue our struggle for freedom of information. It will help people scared off and speaking out.”

According to Reporters Without Borders, with 31 bloggers and citizen-journalists currently behind bars, Vietnam is "the third-largest prison in the world for netizens," behind only China and Oman.

“We are pleased to award this prize to a courageous Vietnamese blogger and thereby recognize the activities of online news providers in a country marked by draconian censorship and growing surveillance of dissidents,” said Reporters Without Borders Secretary-General Christophe Deloire in 2013. “Despite the risks, bloggers and netizens continue to inform their fellow citizens. In Vietnam, they now fill the void left by the state-run media, which are subjected to very strict news control and relay the government’s views. By tackling subjects that are sensitive but of general interest, Huynh Ngoc Chenh helps freedom of information to progress in his country. He is an example for netizens all over the world to follow.”

The Netizen Prize is awarded annually March 12 to coincide with Reporters Without Borders World Day Against Cyber Censorship, during which the organization publishes its list of Enemies of the Internet, "countries [that] mark themselves out not just for their capacity to censor news and information online but also for their almost systematic repression of Internet users."

In 2010, Reporters Without Borders opened its Anti-Censorship Shelter in Paris, where visiting journalists, netizens, and dissidents can learn how to circumvent Internet censorship and protect their electronic communications while maintaining their online anonymity. Among the tools Reporters Without Borders supplies are a Virtual Private Network, which helps users anonymously gain access to blocked Websites; a digital vault, where users can securely store sensitive data; and the Website WeFightCensorship.org, which publishes censored and banned content.

With history continually demonstrating how knowledge can be power, the press—in its traditional and novel forms—is a means to spread power. This is exactly why those in seats of government power, even in relatively free societies, so often attempt to limit the freedom of information.

So long as there are governments trying to deny people the power to know, Reporters Without Borders will have an important job to do.

 

Photo By:  freejamesfoley.org


About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:  greggorymoore.com

 

 

 

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Last Updated : Wednesday, September 24, 2014