Since 1985, Reporters Without Borders has defended press freedom, pluralism and independence the world over. Approximately half the global population has no or limited access to free, uncensored, reliable news and information means that its work to track and publicize issues of press freedom infringement is happening around the clock.
Quill spoke with Clayton Weimers, U.S. executive director of Reporters Without Borders, about the organization’s work and impact. The following has been edited for clarity and length.
From 2002 to 2023, the U.S. dropped from the 17th position to 45th in World Press Freedom’s rankings. What are some of reasons for this downward trajectory?
Journalism became a much more dangerous profession in the United States during the Trump Administration. The president used his pulpit to bully reporters and declare the media the “enemy of the people.” While the rhetoric in the White House has changed, and the number of violations of press freedom has declined, the underlying conditions that led to that deterioration are still largely in place.
What are those conditions?
They include increased hostility toward and distrust of the media, consolidation of media ownership resulting in fewer independent voices, the disappearance of local news, the economic difficulties facing all newsrooms, and powerful politicians openly musing about using the state apparatus to punish members of the media for coverage they don’t like.
What would send the ranking in the other direction?
There are things we can do to reverse the trend. For example, we’re looking toward the Senate right now to pass the PRESS Act [Protect Reporters from Exploitative State Spying Act], which cleared the House unanimously earlier this year. It would create a federal press shield law to prevent law enforcement from compelling reporters to give up their confidential sources.
RSF has been on the forefront of the case against Julian Assange. Would you explain the charges, the pending extradition and the menace they pose to U.S. press freedom?
Because Julian Assange’s name evokes all kinds of strong feelings, it’s important to clarify what the case is actually about: the Wikileaks publication of secret government documents leaked by Chelsea Manning. This publication brought to light information that was clearly in the public interest, such as evidence of war crimes committed by U.S. Armed Forces, including the killing of two Reuters journalists. Assange now faces 17 charges of violating the Espionage Act, an archaic, World War I-era law that has never been used to prosecute a publisher. This case could open a Pandora’s box when it comes to prosecuting publishers, media organizations and journalists. If the Justice Department can prosecute Assange for publishing secret documents, next time it can prosecute the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal.
In July 2023, RSF USA embarked on a mobile campaign throughout Washington, D.C. What was the purpose, and what were some of the results?
One remarkable takeaway is how certain misunderstandings of the Assange case persist, so we find ourselves frequently correcting the record. We simultaneously rented a digital billboard truck to drive around Washington, D.C., to highlight the danger of the case and to remind people what it’s about. One interaction stood out—a tourist approached us on the National Mall to ask about the truck. When we explained what we were doing, she responded acerbically, “Nobody knows about that!” We took that as clear indication as to why we need to keep talking about this case.
The Biden Administration, along with assorted media, press freedom, and human rights organizations, has widely condemned the detaining of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in Russia, arguing that “journalism is not a crime.” Your thoughts on the situation?
Historically, official responses to journalist detainment abroad have been much too slow. That’s why we were extremely pleased when the White House quickly declared Evan to be wrongfully detained. We have every indication that the Biden Administration is working to bring Evan home, but the proof will be when Evan walks free.
You mentioned the PRESS Act, which both RSF and the Society of Professional Journalists support passing into law. What are the chances of that actually happening?
It’s difficult for anything to pass in Congress right now, but I’m optimistic. The PRESS Act came very close to becoming law in 2022 as part of the omnibus package, but it failed at the eleventh hour due to a single senator’s objections. This is a bipartisan, commonsense bill that would secure one of our most fundamental rights against government overreach. It’s a no-brainer, and I bring it up in every meeting I have with a senator or their staff. The bill has already cleared the House for 2023; so, once again, it’s up to the Senate.
Would the PRESS Act protect publishers, and could it benefit Assange if passed soon?
The PRESS Act would not apply in Assange’s case. It’s focused on confidential sources and research materials. A more relevant case is the investigation into the murder of Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter, Jeff German. Police want to review — indeed already have — German’s devices and reporting materials, potentially putting confidential sources at risk. German’s former employer is suing to stop this breach. The state of Nevada has its own press shield law in place, and this case will put that law to the test.
The European Media Freedom Act was introduced in 2022 with a provision to shield against state-sponsored spyware hacks and surveillance. Are U.S. journalists and newsrooms vulnerable to spyware hacks?
In short, yes. Everyone is vulnerable to spyware hacks and needs to take steps to protect their devices and their data. Journalists are particularly at risk given the nature of their work. In the case of Pegasus, NSO Group has disabled it from working against U.S.-based phone numbers. We do know, however, that Pegasus has been widely used against journalists right across the border in Mexico. It was also used against the widow of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, before Khashoggi was murdered by the Saudi regime.
Does RSF have recommendations that could empower journalists and civil society to better safeguard independent, uncensored media and its function in U.S. democracy?
One thing that concerns me right now is that tech platforms are retreating from their previous position as moderators of the information they proliferate, and nothing is replacing that function. Twitter/X’s gutting of its trust and safety teams gets all the attention, but the other platforms are quietly following Elon Musk’s lead. We need transparent, democratic safeguards in place to protect everyone’s right to reliable information. We also need to call out leaders who attack journalism as an institution: every time a politician rails against the media, the working environment for reporters becomes a little less safe. I’m obviously preaching to the choir here, but keep reading and subscribing to local news!
Mischa Geracoulis is a contributing editor at The Markaz Review and with Project Censored, and serves on the editorial board of the Censored Press.