Recent assaults on press freedom and digital rights in the United States have sparked criticism and condemnation from free expression advocates and experts, highlighting how vulnerable these key rights are everywhere, not just in authoritarian or non-democratic countries. The hostility – against 2 local media organisations serving small communities, an organisation documenting hate speech and disinformation, and online freedom more broadly – make it clear that the US, widely seen as one of the most thriving environments for the right to speak and share information, is not immune to violations. It has prompted calls for government, legal and law enforcement officials to honour their duties to uphold the First Amendment and protect the rights of journalists and the press. The attacks also made clear that people in positions of power are increasingly abusing the legal system to avoid accountability.
Raid on the Marion County Record in Kansas
Police raided the offices of The Marion County Record in Kansas and the home of its publishers on 12 August, confiscating computers, mobile phones, documents and other material.
The incident followed a story the local newspaper was pursuing after it received information from a confidential source about the conduct of a local businessperson, and allegations that the paper had violated that person’s right to privacy, despite the fact that the Record had not published anything linked to the supplied information. As news unfolded about the raid, it emerged that the newspaper, which serves a community of about 2000 people, had also recently been looking into conduct of the chief of police, further sparking suspicion about the raid, and police’s decision not to wait for a subpoena to be filed that could have ordered the paper to hand over the relevant material – normal protocol in this type of case.
More than 30 newsrooms and press freedom organisations wrote to the Chief of Police for Marion, Gideon Cody, condemning the raid.
‘The United States is known for its unwavering commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of the press,” said ARTICLE 19’s Executive Director Quinn McKew. ‘And yet the recent raid on the Marion County Record and the seizure of material and equipment is a clear reminder that journalists – that none of us – are fully protected from such assaults. Instead of following protocols on accessing material required for investigations, officials resorted to tactics normally deployed by authoritarian regimes. Government, legal and law enforcement officials in Kansas must be held accountable and acknowledge their duties and obligations under the First Amendment, including protecting the right for the press to do their job. ARTICLE 19 stands in solidarity with the resilient and committed journalists at the Record.’
Defamation law being used to silence reporting
Another small media outlet has also been under fire in the US, facing a defamation charge lodged by a state senator against Wisconsin’s The Wausau Pilot & Review after it reported that he had used an anti-gay slur during a county board meeting. Although the court threw out the case earlier this year, the senator, Cory Tomczyk, launched an appeal. The website is facing huge legal fees and struggling to pay its staff as a result, and its founder and editor fears she might have to close down operations. This is just one example of many cases where politicians and people in positions of power have not just vilified the media, they have taken legal action in attempts to silence stories about and criticism of them.
Media law experts say such defamation cases are on the rise – with politicians and the powerful bolstered by the knowledge that such actions can actually promote their personal brand, and even if the case is thrown out, the legal fees small media outlets have to pay often result in their closure. The chilling impact on independent reporting in the US is all too clear.
‘International standards on freedom of the press stipulate that public officials must be open to scrutiny and tolerate higher levels of criticism than people who don’t hold public office,’ said Quinn McKew. “So these rising numbers of defamation cases against small media outlets have a disastrous impact on our right to know, and our right to access reliable, well-researched information by committed journalists who know their patch well. These journalists must be safeguarded, and their right to free expression protected.’
Elon Musk further restricts access to information – supported by some Republicans
These attacks are taking place against the battle for online freedoms more widely, and the thorny issue of content moderation against a backdrop of rising levels of disinformation, and of hate speech – which threaten to undermine people’s right to have a voice and access to factual information.
Elon Musk, his rebranded X, formerly Twitter, is at the forefront of the debate. He, like many politicians, considers himself to be a champion of free speech. But his version of this right often fails to take into account the damaging and debilitating impact of misinformation and hate speech – both of which routinely threaten people’s right to speak out, and to access information.
Recently, Musk launched a lawsuit against the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), an organisation that documents hate speech on social media, and the European Climate Foundation, accusing them of misusing Twitter data that resulted in lower advertising revenue. As part of its work, the CCDH has identified Twitter/X’s failure to remove violent content and misinformation from its platform on several occasions, and the organisation’s head argues the lawsuit is an attempt to curb this work.
At the same time, a group of Republicans have characterised the CCDH’s work as a tool in “a government-approved or -facilitated censorship regime” and attempts to restrict free speech online.
The accusations are part of a wider campaign against the Biden administration, which a group of Republicans accuse of censoring free speech online, including material about Covid-19, through collusion with organisations and some social media companies. The House Judiciary Committee, led by Republican Jim Jordan, is demanding the CCDH turn over all communications with the government’s executive branch and social media companies ‘regarding the moderation, deletion, suppression … or reduced circulation of content’.
With the deadline for the CCDH to hand over information looming, the outcome remains to be seen. It is clear, however, that this will not be the last free speech clash to emerge in the current climate, where this fundamental right butts up, time and time again, against constantly evolving technologies, political agendas and a changing world.
Attacks on freedom of expression and press freedom are always both shocking and humbling. Always, they are a wake-up call for the world that. Even where freedom of expression and the right to information is most fiercely protected and championed, every one of us has the duty to be vigilant: to stand up for these cherished rights, to acknowledge the role they play in supporting other rights, and to hold their governments and officials to account.