Free Press Challenged in the Middle East and in Washington, D.C.

On May 1, 2014 Freedom House issued its latest Freedom of the Press report of 2013, assessing the degree of media freedom in 197 countries and territories in the calendar year. By chance, a few days earlier on April 29, 2014 a previously undisclosed email that had been sent on September 14, 2012 by Ben Rhodes, the deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications for President Barack Obama, to Susan Rice, then American Ambassador to the United Nations, was revealed.

The email was only made public after the NGO Judicial Watch asked for documents relating to the terrorist attack on September 11, 2012 on the U.S. Compound in Benghazi, Libya that led to the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others. That email gave talking points to Rice for her forthcoming Sunday five television appearances explaining the nature of the attack.

In spite of evidence to the contrary that the responsible party was an al Qaeda affiliated group, the key point by Rhodes was that Rice should “underscore that these protests are rooted in an internet video, (a You Tube video that demeaned the Prophet Mohammed), and not a broader failure of policy.” With the revealing of his email it became clear that, in order not to hinder President Obama in the campaign for re-election in November, or perhaps to help the future electoral ambitions of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the White House had manipulated messages and information about the Benghazi attack to suggest it had been caused by a mob protest over the video, not by a well-planned terrorist attack.

Obvious political and partisan views will resound about the Obama administration’s disregard of the rule of law or its failure to adhere to legal obligations to provide information, or even about some inner conspiracy to protect the president. What is undeniable is the White House manipulation of information for political advantage, and the consequent misleading and obstruction of journalists.

In the Freedom House (FH) report an overall assessment is made of the ways in which pressure can be placed on the flow of independent information and the ability of all news outlets to operate freely. Among the issues covered are the degree of partisan control over news content and political influences on reporting and access to information. Following this general concept, the U.S. Congress has the obligation to mount investigations to ascertain why relevant documents were not made available to it when it began investigating the Benghazi attack.

The FH report does not of course directly address the Obama administration but it does indicate that the United States suffered a decline in press freedom. The given reasons were government attempts to control official information flows, particularly concerning national security-related issues, the legal harassment of journalists with regard to protection of sources, targeted wiretapping of media outlets, and surveillance of communications data by the National Security Agency.

The decline in press freedom, as Freedom House shows, is an increasing problem in a considerable part of the world. In its survey of the 197 countries, the FH report by using scores to 23 methodological questions rated the degree of media freedom, the control over the content of news, the physical harassment of journalists, the suppressing of sensitive stories, and the constraints on online news and social media.

The results were disappointing. States, partly because of economic crisis, have been adopting restrictive policies aimed at punishing and silencing journalists and impeding the free flow of information. Global press freedom has fallen to its lowest level in more than a decade. Only 1 in 7 people live in a land with a totally free press. A total of 63 countries (32%), or 14 % of the world’s population, were rated free; 68 (35%) were rated partly free, and 66 (33%), or 44% of the world’s population, were rated not free. The worst countries were Belarus, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Some countries in the European Union particularly Greece and Spain, showed a deterioration of press freedom, and the worst were Croatia, Hungary, and Romania. Other countries in Europe, including Finland, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Netherlands, were among the best in the world.

The findings of the report on Middle East countries are not surprising. Only one country, Israel, is rated as having a free press. Four others, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, and Kuwait, are rated as partly free, and the other14 are rated as not free. The worst five are, in order, Iran, Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This means that only 2 % of the region’s people (Israelis) live in free media environments, 14 % in partly free, and 84 % in territories designated as not free,

In the Middle East, gains in freedom had been made for a while in the Arab Spring in countries like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. But then conditions deteriorated. In Libya, journalists were threatened, kidnapped, and even killed. Penal and civil codes were used to bring defamation charges against them. In Egypt, military authorities closed both television and print outlets, and targeted and arrested local and foreign journalists. In Tunisia, the number of legal cases, relating to libel laws, increased against journalists, and very high license renewal fees threatened to undermine independent radio stations.

Israel was by far the best country in the region for freedom with its free and pluralistic press. The report did indicate challenges that remain there: military censorship; gag orders to restrict coverage; some limits on freedom of movement of journalists. Obviously no one is perfect, and the report emphasized that in Israel there were no serious legal charges and fewer reported cases of physical attacks or harassment against journalists.

All this is a message to journalists covering the Middle East. Not surprisingly, most of them make their base in Israel. Now that they have accurate information, can one expect more stories from them about the real degree of freedom in the countries they cover?

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.