The Seven Things Obama Can Do to confront the New Censorship

Joel Simon, The New CensorshipThe following post is by Joel Simon, author of The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom:

The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media covers events and trends from an international perspective. But some of the questions I’ve gotten from audience members at recent events have to do with the Obama administration and its policies. Below I will look at what Obama has done so far and what still needs to be done.

1. Advocate for the rights of individual journalists. One the simplest and most effective strategies that the Obama administration can implement is to raise the cases of persecuted journalists in bilateral meetings, public statements, and through diplomatic channels. In fact, the administration has a good record of doing this. Former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciordone repeatedly spoke out about the imprisonment of Turkish journalists, much to the annoyance of the government in Ankara. U.S. officials have also raised the cases of imprisoned Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Van Hai (who was recently released and is now in the United States), the so-called Zone 9 bloggers in Ethiopia, and the Al Jazeera journalists currently imprisoned in Egypt. How’s the administration doing so far in this area? Reasonably well. I would give it a B+.

2. Formulate policies that clearly articulate the balance between U.S. strategic interests and the promotion of human rights. The limitation of advocating on behalf of individual journalists is that the administration has not clearly articulated how far it will push the human rights agenda when it clashes with national security interests. For example, in Turkey, while the embassy and the state department spoke out, President Obama did not, and this was interpreted in Turkey as a signal that U.S. strategic interests would take precedence. The same is true in Ethiopia, which has been a key ally in confronting Islamic militantism in the Horn of Africa; and in Egypt, which despite its unbearable repression is seen as a bulwark against growing regional instability. These countries have effectively resisted U.S. pressure on protecting journalists because they view human rights and press freedom as something that can be negotiated. In other words, the more valuable you are as a strategic ally of the United States the more repression you can get away it. How has Obama done so drawing the line on press freedom violations? I would give him a C.

3. Limit surveillance. The staggering revelations made by Edward Snowden blew the lid on NSA program global surveillance, which we now know operates on scale that is difficult comprehend. Much has been made of the implications of surveillance in a domestic context, and the questions regarding the legality of U.S. spying need to be urgently addressed. But it is important to keep in mind that there are no legal restrictions on surveillance outside the United States, and as a former NSA official recently told me, a non-U.S. journalist speaking to a confidential source would make an ideal target for NSA spying. The scope of the NSA surveillance effort not only has a chilling effect on journalists around the world, it normalizes the efforts of country’s like China and Iran that routinely surveil both domestic critics and their perceived international adversaries (including journalists). When it comes to spying on journalists, the U.S. needs to put in place policies that carefully balance intelligence needs with the negative impact they might have on global freedom of expression. How’s the administration doing far? Poorly. I give it a D.

4. Defend the Internet. The Internet was developed by U.S. computer scientists and even though it is now a global system much of the core infrastructure that makes the Internet function is still based in the United States. For the most part, the U.S. has been a responsible global steward, and the administration has actively promoted the “right to connect” as a form of freedom of association. However, the political environment now requires that the U.S. modulate its role in Internet governance as a means of countering challenges from countries like China that seek to put the global Internet at service of state interests. China’s most compelling argument is that the U.S. is exploiting its privileged position to undermine rival powers by pumping in destabilizing information and carrying out massive surveillance. This is why the best way to ensure that the Internet remains a viable, shared global resource is for the U.S. to further internationalize governance. To its credit, the administration has been seeking to do this in the least few years. How is the administration doing on this critical front? Pretty well. I give the administration an A-.

5. Support linkage between development and media freedom. One of the greatest recent opportunities to promote global free expression is passing us by. Next year, the United Nations will be updating its Sustainable Development Goals, a series of specific benchmarks to fight poverty and support global economic growth. Given the clear correlation between access to independent information and human development, expanding global freedom of expression is vital. But many member states are resisting because they fear that a population empowered by information will resist the power of the state. The U.S must take the lead, and advocate within the U.N system to make freedom of expression a priority. How’s the U.S doing so far? I give the administration a B-.

6. Strengthen press freedom in the United States. President Obama came to power in 2009 promising to lead the most transparent administration in U.S. history. But he has not met this commitment. To the contrary, the Obama administration has pursued a variety of policies that undermine rather than strengthen the press in the United States. These were enumerated in a 2013 CPJ report The Obama Administration and the Press and include aggressive prosecution of leakers (a record eight cases under the Espionage Act); government programs that restrict access between government employees and the press; and most recently the ongoing prosecution of New York Times journalist James Risen for failing to testify about his confidential sources. These policies of course undermine Obama’s legacy and have a negative impact on the media environment in this country. But they also embolden repressive governments, who might exploit any shortcoming in the U.S. press freedom record to justify their own excesses. How is the administration doing so far? The record is poor. I gave the president a C-.

7. Develop effective policies to address the scourge of journalists’ kidnappings. The U.S. policy is to never to negotiate with terrorists. So when U.S. journalists are kidnapped by Islamic militants, all the U.S. can do is collect intelligence and if the opportunity presents itself launch a military rescue operation. The logic behind the policy of not paying ransom is that such payments would make U.S. journalists more attractive targets. But the issue must be examined in a broader context. Since many European countries pay ransom, international journalists are already targets. The European journalists are often freed once the ransom gets paid, but the prospects are dim for the Americans. As the murder of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff showed, the kidnapping of U.S. journalists must be seen as a national security issue and the decision-making and responses need to be made by senior officials. To its credit, the administration has just announced a high-level policy review. The review should examine greater coordination with European allies to insure that disparities in the approach to hostage taking are not exploited by terrorists groups who in the current environment are able to both earn piles of money through ransom and score propaganda victories through the horrific staged executions of the U.S. hostages. How the administration doing? The announcement of the policy review is a major step forward. I give it a C.

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