In last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama called for a “renewal of American values.” However, over the course of his wide-ranging speech, he made no mention of one core value: the fundamental role of the free press in America.
This absence was highlighted this morning when Reporters Without Borders released its 2011–2012 global Press Freedom Index. After months of journalist arrests and press suppression at Occupy Wall Street-inspired protests, the United States has dropped significantly in the rankings.
According to this report, the U.S. has dropped 27 places to 47th in the world. This is especially troubling as we head into an election year which is sure to spark new conflicts between police and press covering rallies, protests and political events.
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And these Occupy arrests are not isolated incidents. According to organizations like the Society for Professional Journalists, the National Press Photographers Association and the Committee to Protect Journalists, the arrests at Occupy events are part of a growing trend in the U.S. and worldwide.
President Obama has often made media reform and press freedom part of his platform. As a candidate he called for Internet freedom, greater media diversity and limits on media consolidation. “The arc of human progress has been shaped by individuals with the freedom to assemble,” Obama said in a speech at the United Nations in 2009, “and by organizations outside of government that insisted upon democratic change and by free media that held the powerful accountable.”
Just last year, at the White House Correspondents Dinner, President Obama directly addressed press freedom and violence toward journalists. He said:
“You know, in the last months, we've seen journalists threatened, arrested, beaten, attacked and in some cases even killed simply for doing their best to bring us the story, to give people a voice and to hold leaders accountable. And through it all, we've seen daring men and women risk their lives for the simple idea that no one should be silenced, and everyone deserves to know the truth.
“That's what you do. At your best that's what journalism is. That's the principle that you uphold. It is always important, but it's especially important in times of challenge, like the moment that America and the world is facing now.”
It’s time to confront this issue head on. We can’t take the First Amendment for granted, and we need to open up a national discussion about the role of the media and freedom of the press in our democracy. The media landscape is changing at a profound rate, and we must ensure that our policies and institutions keep pace. If, as President Obama asserts, we need a renewal of American values, then the First Amendment should be high on our list.