Posted by Bruce E.H. Johnson

Privacy International has issued its annual Privacy and Human Rights Study analyzing privacy protections around the world. The study ranks the United States near the bottom for privacy protections, calling it an “extensive surveillance society.”

In failing to provide privacy rights, the U.S. is in very interesting company, as one news account noted:

Privacy International ranked 36 nations around the globe, including all European Union nations and other major democracies, and determined that in categories such as enforcement of privacy laws, the U.S. is on par with countries like China, Russia and Malaysia.

Privacy International director Simon Davies also noted America’s poor performance. “This is damning evidence that privacy is being destroyed by the very nations that proclaim to respect our rights,” he said. “It is clear that there is a systemic failure of legal mechanisms to protect us against the emerging surveillance society. Those responsible for protecting our rights have failed to do so … Australia, Britain and the United States have not only performed abysmally but they are embracing surveillance at an alarming speed.”

Privacy rights are sometimes seen as the enemy of press freedoms. But, with the Bush Administration’s current policies, the U.S. is managing to undermine both.

The Privacy International study was issued only a few days after Reporters Without Borders reported on world press freedoms, and ranked the U.S. 53rd in its annual Press Freedom Index, alongside Botswana, Croatia and Tonga. The Americans have just managed to stay ahead of Uruguay, but are behind the Dominican Republic.

Many factors may account for this sad trend, which may also reflect improvements in other nations’ attitudes toward the media as much as a deterioration in press freedoms in America. It is clear, of course, that the current Administration has not been friendly to press outlets that have failed to cheer for the Iraq war and its other policies, and it has even paid at least one member of the media to become a cheerleader. Indeed, as Ron Suskind noted in his recent book The One Percent Doctrine, American armed forces deliberately bombed an Arab satellite channel office in Kabul in order “to send a message” to the media.

The dismal privacy rankings and the dismal press rankings are not unrelated. Government surveillance of the press directly imperils both.

And, as the Reporters Without Borders study suggests, the increasing lack of protection in the United States for confidential news sources (which is at bottom a kind of privacy protection for citizens to express grievances) which has allowed American government authorities to threaten to imprison — or in several cases, imprison — journalists is a major element in the loss of press freedom in the United States:

The United States (53rd) has fallen nine places since last year, after being in 17th position in the first year of the Index, in 2002. Relations between the media and the Bush administration sharply deteriorated after the president used the pretext of “national security” to regard as suspicious any journalist who questioned his “war on terrorism.” The zeal of federal courts which, unlike those in 33 US states, refuse to recognise the media’s right not to reveal its sources, even threatens journalists whose investigations have no connection at all with terrorism.

Freelance journalist and blogger Josh Wolf was imprisoned when he refused to hand over his video archives. Sudanese cameraman Sami al-Haj, who works for the pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera, has been held without trial since June 2002 at the US military base at Guantanamo, and Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein has been held by US authorities in Iraq since April this year.

The Hussain imprisonment has recently occasioned a protest from the Associated Press and other media groups which have noted that the AP photographer has been imprisoned by American officials without charges.

With midterm elections approaching in the United States, many defenders of press freedom and privacy rights are probably hoping for a break in one-party control of the federal government, which has been in place for several years.