SEATTLE, Washington — Global press freedom is critical to upholding fair governance and the rule of law. However, a truly free worldwide press is still an elusive goal. Many of the world’s poorest people suffer when human rights violations go unreported due to governmental pressure or scare tactics. Journalists operating in many countries experience restrictions or retaliation when leaders may not want their negligence exposed by the media. In these countries, journalists and their sources risk punishment when they raise alarm about how citizens are being affected by government decisions or activities.
U.S. Senate Chairman Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Senate Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-MD) want to address these realities with the Worldwide Press Freedom and Reciprocity Act, presented to the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee in May of 2020. At the same time, U.S. Representatives Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Tom Suozzi (D-NY) introduced H.R. 7001, the act’s companion bill in the House. If passed, such a law would promote global press freedom by imposing sanctions and other measures to hold foreign government entities accountable for human rights violations against journalists, news media personnel, and their sources.
The Urgency of Press Freedom During the Pandemic
In his statement, Senator Rubio said that the bill “reaffirms the United States’ commitment to advancing the principles that are critical for healthy democracies.” Senator Cardin emphasized how crises highlight the need for global press freedom, stating “We have only seen the attacks against journalists and media personnel increase with the coronavirus pandemic, which authoritarian regimes have exploited to crack down on press freedom.”
Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has seen several instances of mistreatment of journalists as well as the spread of government-sanctioned misinformation. This year, several governments were responsible for openly denying the seriousness of the virus, while Egypt and China expelled foreign journalists for reporting on it. India’s government allowed the spread of blatant misinformation blaming Muslim minority groups for spreading the virus. In other countries, journalists were arrested for exposing inconvenient truths about government mishandling of the pandemic.
The U.S. Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act
Senator Cardin’s concern about global press freedom during the pandemic is timely, but also characteristic of his role in the Senate. He has been involved in two prior pieces of legislation seeking justice for victims of human rights abuses, beginning with a key piece of 2012 legislation, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. This act is named after an imprisoned Russian accountant tortured and killed by Russian authorities in 2009 after he sought to uncover tax fraud in the upper echelons of the government. This law denied several Russian members of state entry to the U.S. and froze their assets when they were found guilty of Magnitsky’s torture and murder.
Senator Cardin also championed the U.S. Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. This legislation expanded on the 2012 law to allow the U.S. president the power to ban entry to the U.S. and seize or freeze the U.S.-held assets of anyone worldwide who is guilty of abusing human rights. This bill, which upholds H.R. 7001, had strong bipartisan support and was signed by President Obama in 2016. Canada, in addition to several countries in Europe, has also passed its own version of the U.S. Global Magnitsky Act.
Other provisions of the U.S. Global Magnitsky Act allow the U.S. to take punitive measures against American firms, banks, and companies that operate domestically or internationally for doing business with any sanctioned person or entity. This encourages accountability amongst world leaders and officials who have an interest in dealing with American businesses.
Senator Cardin urged fellow lawmakers to consider the benefits of greater accountability, stating that “A strong and independent media, free from political pressure and censorship, is fundamental to sustainable and accountable democracy. The United States must use the Global Magnitsky Act and all tools available to hold accountable those individuals who violate the human rights of those who serve such an essential function in our open society.”
Connection to Poverty
Global press freedom and poverty are inseparable. Simply put, countries with less press freedom tend to be poorer. In fact, 57 of the countries that are in the bottom 50% of RSF’s Worldwide Press Freedom Index ranking also appear in the bottom 50% of the UN’s Human Development Index ranking.
Lack of empowerment is at the root of poverty and a stifled press. Although more restrictive foreign governments may cling to authoritarian anti-defamation laws to justify attacks or restrictions against journalists, these fly in the face of much-needed accountability and are ultimately incongruous with widely-accepted development goals around the world.
The U.S. as Agenda-Setter
The World Press Freedom and Reciprocity Act is a potential solution with bipartisan support to extend the reach of the U.S. Global Magnitsky Act in combating the long-standing issue of violence against journalists. Its passage would specifically target human rights violations against the media, creating vital transparency for governance worldwide, encouraging a freer and more prosperous society for all, and setting an important precedent for nations who want to rise out of poverty.
– Andrea Kruger