Intellectual Freedom Fighters, Part 4: Reporters Without Borders

Censorship, First Amendment, News Literacy

By: Kelly Bilz

In Intellectual Freedom Fighters, a five-part series, I hope to draw attention to organizations who are either extraordinary or unique in their efforts to preserve and protect intellectual freedom. These organizations might have drawn my attention due to their specific focus within intellectual freedom, their successes, or their extreme measures. This fourth part’s highlight belongs to Reporters Sans Frontieres, or Reporters Without Borders.

When the Newseum, dedicated to the press and the First Amendment, announced that it would close at the end of the year in 2019, many found the announcement prophetic of the downfall of journalism. Even though there are plans to open the Newseum at another location, the initial announcement inspired headlines like “Metaphor Alert.” Some, however, met the news with glee, journalists included (just check out this headline).

So, the Newseum is closing, Buzzfeed lays off 15% of its staff, and print newspaper as a medium is on the decline in the digital age. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “fake news,” referring both to the spread of misinformation, powered by the internet, and to the political connotation so emblematic of the Trump presidency. (Did you know that Donald Trump’s use of “fake news” has its own heading on the “Fake news” Wikipedia page?) There’s reason for hope–local news won big at the Pulitzers, showing that journalists are still working and still being acknowledged for their important work–but the future of journalism often seems bleak.

Raised fist holding a pencil symbolizing freedom of the press

On top of all that, as the Reuters Institute published in their report on the future of journalism, the profession “is often losing the battle for people’s attention and in some countries for the public’s trust.” This is why the work of Reporters Without Borders, the fourth Intellectual Freedom Fighter in this series, is so important.

Reporters Sans Frontieres: Who Are They?

Though I refer to the organization by their English name, their actual title–and their website–is in French. (They also report in English, Russian, Spanish, Arabic, Farsi, and Chinese, however, according to their “Our Activities” page.) Reporters Without Borders was established in 1985 to defend freedom of the press across the world, and it’s been receiving prizes ever since. Reporters Without Borders has five offices around the globe, in London, Tunis, Washington D.C., Rio de Janeiro, and Taipei. They also have “115 correspondents in 115 countries,” so they are truly global in scale.

RSF (the abbreviation comes from their French name) “reports daily on the abuses against journalism and all forms of censorship, after checking and cross-checking information.” This mission takes several different forms. They frequently post world news about journalism–imprisoned reporters, for instance, or new government legislation regarding censorship–on their home page. Also on the homepage, after scrolling about halfway down, is the Barometer, which keeps a tally of violations of free press and abuse of journalists. The Barometer has its own webpage, too, with archives of past years, back to 2000.

Three newspaper machines covered in snow

In addition to its news coverage and barometer, RSF publishes the World Press Freedom Index each year. In addition to a ranking of countries by their freedom of the press–in which the United States is 48th, by the way, right behind Romania–they analyze the threats to the press and journalists in each country.

This ties into RSF’s other functions, which focus on protecting journalists, whether offering legal guidance for those seeking asylum, or providing protective gear and training for those in physical danger. RSF also works on the social and political stage, lobbying for freedom of the press and mobilizing the global public through its World Press Index or World Day Against Cyber Censorship, which RSF started in 2008 (it’s on March 12–mark your calendars!).

What You Can Do:

One last thing I have to point out about RSF’s website: at the bottom of the homepage, with the social media sharing icons, it says: “J’agis en faisant connaître cette information,” or, “I act by making this information known.” In this series so far, I’ve loved being able to highlight organizations that empower us all to be intellectual freedom fighters: persistent genealogists filing FOIA requests, activists with extra flash drives, people with books to spare, and now, people with social media accounts (which would be most of us).

RSF also has a page dedicated to petitions, which can be searched by country, region, and issue (media independence, protection of journalists, etc.). There are also many ways you can financially support RSF, as listed on their website. News of journalists in Myanmar being released after 500 days in prison and of governments spying on journalists in Canada (ranked #18) reinforces the RSF’s message: N’attendez pas qu’on vous prive de l’information pour la défendre (“Do not wait until you are deprived of information to defend it”)!

Why Libraries Should Care

This is the Office of Intellectual Freedom blog–I don’t think anyone would disagree that the freedom of press is critical to upholding intellectual freedom, democracy, or the right to information. Still, the office is part of the American Library Association, so I also want to explore the connection between the professions of journalism and librarianship.

Modern-day newsroom, with people on computers and small stacks of printed newspapers on the front desk

Working in Local History, newspapers are some of my favorite resources. Most of my reference requests are to find obituaries because of all the fantastic information they contain that usually isn’t included on a census or death certificate. There’s the old maxim that a woman’s name (changed to a gentleman’s name in Kingsmen) should only appear in the newspaper three times: when they’re born, when they get married, and when they die. Fortunately for genealogists and researchers, most of our ancestors weren’t civilized folks. Newspapers are also invaluable for reconstructing the historic landscape, like the “Letters Home” column from soldiers abroad in World War II, or coverage of student protests in the 1960s-1970s.

Even outside of Local History, librarianship and journalism are connected. At first, I was surprised how many journalists ended up in libraries, but I soon realized that both libraries and journalists require similar skills of research and writing. The overlap goes beyond that, however. Why should libraries care? Because journalists, like librarians, subscribe to a code of ethics. Because journalists, like librarians, know their jobs are essential, yet have seen their profession come under fire. Because journalists, like librarians, know that information is a human right.

Kelly Bilz

Kelly Bilz is a graduate student from Kentucky pursuing her MLIS with a specialization in academic libraries. She works in her university’s Special Collections as well as the local history department of a public library. Kelly first heard about intellectual freedom in her Information in Society course and has spent the time since arguing with her friends about intellectual freedom in algorithms, ethics, and institutional integrity. Because she is passionate about history and the cultural record, Kelly is interested in how intellectual freedom affects access to genealogical records and ethical collecting practices in archives. In her free time, Kelly enjoys listening to podcasts (especially Ear Hustle) and watching old movies (like Lady from Shanghai). Find her on LinkedIn.

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