United States

The major piece of unfinished business for U.S. press freedom advocates during this period continues to be final congressional action on the Free Flow of Information Act, or federal shield law. On March 31, 2009 a revised bill (from a 2007 bill) passed the US House of Representatives (HR 985). On December 11, 2009, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed its version of the bill (S 448), but it has yet to be docketed, approved by the Senate and then reconciled with the House version. The District of Columbia and 49 states have recognized a reporter’s privilege whether through statute or judicial decisions. More than 70 media groups and companies continue to push for adoption of a federal law to protect journalists from identifying confidential sources. In 2008, the Attorneys General from 42 states urged the Senate to act on the legislation, stating that the lack of a federal standard is “producing inconsistency and uncertainty for reporters and the confidential sources upon whom they rely.” The United States Supreme Court in this period issued an important ruling affecting media advertising in elections when it declared that corporations are protected by the First Amendment in their expenditures in election. In January, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a groundbreaking speech on Internet freedom, recognized that an open internet is not just a matter of human rights but integral to economic development and economic stability, and criticized online censorship by allies and trade partners, citing China. “Censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere… The US will devote the “diplomatic, economic, and technological resources necessary” to press for internet freedom” and “in America, American companies need to make a principles stand”. Clinton also mentioned the Global Network Initiative (GNI), a volunteer effort by Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, human rights organizations, academics and investors that obliges companies to protect freedom of expression and privacy online. Google CEO Eric Schmidt announced in mid-March that Google remains in active negotiations with the Chinese government to resolve its threats to shut down its China-based search service unless the Chinese government relents on censorship. In Congress, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin chaired a hearing on March 2nd on “Global Internet Freedom and the Rule of Law” to examine IT business practices in internet-restricting countries. Frustrated by industry no-shows and claiming that “With a few notable exceptions, the information technology industry seems unwilling to regulate itself and unwilling even to engage in a dialogue with Congress about the serious human rights challenges the industry faces”, Durbin stated he may introduce legislation to insure that companies adhere to human rights standards or face criminal liability. One possibility mentioned is mandatory membership in the GNI. In other major journalistic and freedom of expression developments in the U.S. in recent months include: On January 19th, the Supreme Court ordered sent back to a Philadelphia appeal court the case of journalist and one-time Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, sentenced to death in dubious circumstances in 1982. After rejecting two calls (October 2008 and April 2009) for a new trail from Abu Jamal’s lawyer who claimed racial bias and prosecutorial fraud left real doubt about his guilt at the time of his conviction, the Supreme Court ordered the Appeals Court to review its March 2008 ruling that a new jury should decide on the death penalty handed down to the radio journalist “in the light” of one of the Supreme Court’s recent rulings in another capital case (Sispak/Ohio). Jamal communicates through the RSF website. In February, Reuters freelance photographer Ibrahim Jassam was released by the US military after being held for 17 months in Iraq. Jassam was arrested on September 2, 2008, never charged with a crime and no evidence against him was ever disclosed. US forces only asserted that he was a “threat”. Proposed legislation in some states would limit free access by the media to 911 calls. Bills in Ohio, Alabama, Wisconsin and Florida limit the media’s access to emergency-call recordings in a battle between transparency to monitor public agencies and protection of the privacy of individuals. States bills’ differing approaches range from banning public access to recordings but allowing transcripts to be read on air, to monetary fines, to their release under court order only. The State Department lifted a visa ban in January that prohibited Swiss Scholar Tariq Ramadan from entering the US to accept a tenured position at Notre Dame University. Ramadan ’s visa was revoked in 2004 by Homeland Security under a Patriot Act provision barring those who “endorse or espouse terrorism”. A prominent scholar of Islam in Europe, Ramadan was supported by a lawsuit that involved PEN, ACLU, the American Association of University Professors and the American Academy of Religions, filed in 2006 and dropped following the January decision by the State Dept. Recognition of reporters associated with the Chauncey Bailey Project for their heroic work in exposing perpetrators of the murder in California of Oakland Post Editor Bailey in 2007. The reporters received the McGill Medal for Journalistic Courage awarded by the University of Georgia in memory of the late crusading editor, Ralph McGill. The New York Times announced in January that later this year it will launch a “pay-meter” for frequent users of its website who are not subscribers to the newspaper. Details remain sketchy, but company officials say NYT website visitors will be charged depending on how often they view stories. The Miami Herald briefly experimented with “Tip Jar” donations from readers to support its website, but quietly ended it after two months in February. The Herald is believed to be the first major newspaper to experiment with voluntary contributions from readers for online news access. Scripps Senior VP for Newspapers Mark Contreras told a Federal Trade Commission hearing that the industry still lacks a reliable, consistent measurement for online audience. “There are no universally accepted definitions (of online audience) that both publishers and advertiser agree on,” he said. “Creating one gold-standard definition should help publishers in deriving more fair value for the online inventory all publishers create.” Editor and Publisher magazine – the Nielsen-owned newspaper industry “bible” since 1884 – appeared on the verge of extinction in late December. In mid-January, it was announced that California boating magazines publisher Duncan McIntosh Inc. had purchased E&P and a February issue appeared. On March 17th the FCC presented its long-awaited “National Broadband Plan” to Congress. Julius Genachowski . F CC Chairman, stated that the proposal “is necessary to meet the challenges of global competitiveness, and harness the power of broadband to help address so many vital national issues.” The plan broadly seeks a 90 percent broadband adoption rate by 2020, up from roughly 65 percent, at an increased speed of 25 times today’s norm, thus reflecting that broadband Internet is becoming the common medium of the United States replacing telephone and broadcast television. Many of the recommendations will require Congressional action. The issue of internet neutrality – open and unrestricted access to all content -- as expected, was not addressed directly by the FCC in its proposal to Congress; however critics predict it will become a key issue as internet providers fight to maintain a competitive edge through the ability to offer different levels of access to the Internet at varying pay-rates.