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Sunday, June 16, 2024 | Back issues
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Press Index Slaps U.S.|for Leak Prosecutions

(CN) - Treatment of whistle-blowers cost the United States 13 ranks in a 2014 press freedom index, while Ecuador jumped 25 places for legislation that broke up private control of the airwaves.

The United States now occupies 46th place between Romania and Haiti in the annual list compiled by Reporters Without Borders. Ecuador rose to the 95th spot between Bolivia and Israel, whose position dropped dramatically last year once the Paris-based press watchdog stopped differentiating between "Israel (Israeli Territory)" and "Israel (Extra-territorial)."

Citing a "war on whistle-blowers" and the "relentless persecution of journalists" in the United States, WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson said he expected a "more dramatic" drop for Uncle Sam.

U.S. law enforcement has eyed the secret-spilling website ever since the publication of more than 700,000 military and diplomatic files provided by Chelsea Manning, a former Army private then known as Bradley.

Arrested in May 2010, Manning finally went to trial more than three years later, and is now serving a 35-year sentence inside a military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., for the disclosures.

Bemoaning this "extremely long sentence," Reporters Without Borders noted that Manning is hardly alone in heavy prosecution under the Espionage Act.

"No fewer that eight individuals have been charged under the Espionage Act since Obama became president, compared with three during Bush's two terms," the report states.

It is important to note that this pertains only to Espionage Act charges concerning leaks to the press. Of those, President George W. Bush charged only pro-Israel lobbyist Lawrence Franklin under the Espionage Act during his two terms. The three prior uses of the statute represent the combined total of all of President Barack Obama's predecessors.

Under the Obama administration, "the whistleblower is the enemy," the 32-page report states.

Obama's defenders point out that the prosecutions of former CIA agent John Kiriakou and ex-National Security Agency whistle-blower Thomas Drake on his watch actually began during the Bush administration.

Kiriakou is now serving a 30-month federal prison sentence for disclosing the name of a covert agent involved in so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques," widely condemned as torture.

Drake's prosecution for telling the Baltimore Sun about the National Security Administration's Trailblazer project fell apart before trial, but not before destroying his career in U.S. intelligence and forcing him to work at an Apple store in Maryland.

Seizing the phone records of reporters from the Associated Press also lumped the United States with Brazil as "New World Giants That Set a Bad Example," according to one heading of the report.

Meanwhile former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, ensconced in Russia to avoid prosecution for leaking secrets of U.S. mass surveillance to the Washington Post and the Guardian, faces a fresh indictment for alleged Espionage Act violations.

From his two-year asylum in Ecuador's London embassy, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange briefly had a platform on Russia's state-owned media outlet RT for a talk show called "The World Tomorrow," which aired his interview with Ecuador President Rafael Correa.

Though Assange is wanted for questioning in Sweden on sexual misconduct allegations, the Australian native calls it a ruse to extradite him to the United States for his work as a publisher.

The United States has long accused Russia and Ecuador of hypocrisy for their vocal support of WikiLeaks under the banner of press freedom.


Indeed, Reporters Without Borders warns against letting Russia "divert attention" from its "increasingly repressive state" with the ongoing Sochi Olympics, and its position remained toward the bottom of the list at 148th place.

The report lists Ecuador, however, as one of the year's "Noteworthy Rises," mainly for its June adoption of a communications law.

That legislation came during a wave of "democratization of the media" occurring throughout Latin America, according to the report.

Under the heading "Clamour on the Left for Media Regulation," the report asks, "Are broadcast frequencies easier to redistribute than parcels of land?"

"Agrarian reform has long been a rallying cry in a Latin America notorious for social inequality," the report states. "It has found an echo in a challenge taken up by progressive governments in the south of the region - the democratization of the media."

Delphine Helgand, the U.S. director of Reporters Without Borders, said in an interview that Ecuador's improved performance in this year's report reflected the openness officials showed during debate on the new law, which she said contained many promising provisions.

An article calling for "fair distribution of the broadcast frequencies" slices up ownership of the airwaves almost exactly into thirds between state, private and community-run outlets.

State-run media gets only a sliver more of the pie at 34 percent, Helgand said, adding that her organization stood apart from other NGOs by adopting a "moderate view" of the law.

While Human Rights Watch said the new regulation "undercuts press freedom," Reporters Without Borders said that the allocation gives Ecuador a "legislative weapon against the country's often aggressive and much criticized privately owned media."

President Correa defended the measures the same way on "The World Tomorrow."

"Please, the whole world should understand what is going on in Latin America," Correa told Assange, according to a transcript of the episode. "When I got to the government, there were seven national television channels, there was no public service television - all of them private. Five of them belonged to bankers. Imagine if I wanted to do something against the banks, for example in order to resolve the crisis with all the abuses that exist in the Europe and U.S. banks. They had a merciless campaign against our measures in order to defend the interests of the bankers who were the owners of this media."

The rancor on both sides could be why Reporters Without Borders found that "the level of media polarization is still high and often detrimental to public debate."

The Paris-based press watchdog noted that critics also were concerned by language in the new law calling for coverage to be "accurate, opportune, balanced, contextualized and of public interest."

Three other provisions of the new communications law guarantee source protection, professional confidentiality and respect for a journalist's beliefs, and another provision forbids censorship by government officials, Helgand elaborated.

WikiLeaks spokesman Hrafnsson, who said he had been in Ecuador during debate on the new law, said in an interview he understood the law to be "progressive and beneficial to journalism."

Referring to the dominant view of capitalism practiced in the United States, Hrafnsson added that he knew it was "controversial" and "not in line with the Chicago school of economics."

Helgand nevertheless regretted that the new law did not take the step of decriminalizing defamation, and she said the organization is cautious about next year's rankings in light of a recent Ecuador order forcing a "correction" from a cartoonist.

Ecuador's offer of asylum to Assange did not factor into its position this year, Helgand emphasized.

Officials in Washington and Quito did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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