In America, we commonly think of press freedom and censorship in terms of the First Amendment, which focuses attention on the press itself, and limits on the power of government to restrict it. But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted in the aftermath of World War II, presents a broader framework.
Article 19 reads, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
By highlighting the right to receive information and ideas, Article 19 makes it clear that press freedom is about everyone in society, not just the press, and that government censorship is only one potential way of thwarting that right. That's the perspective that has informed Project Censored from the beginning, more than 40 years ago.
Begun by Carl Jensen, a sociology professor at California's Sonoma State University shortly after Watergate in 1976, it's become an institution involving dozens of faculty members and institutions working together to come up with an annual list of the Top 25 Censored Stories of the Year.
Even though Project Censored's annual list focuses on specific censored stories, the underlying issue has never been isolated examples. They serve to highlight how far short we fall from the fully-informed public that a healthy democracy requires — and that we all require in order to live healthy, safe, productive, satisfying lives.
It's the larger patterns of missing information, hidden problems and threats that should really concern us. Each Project Censored story provides some of that information, but the annual list helps shed light on these broader patterns of what's missing, as well as on the specifics of the stories themselves.
Among this year's top 10 stories, three main themes seem evident: threats to public health; threats to democracy, both at home and abroad; and an out-of-control military. The top 10 for 2016-17:
- ILLUSTRATION BY Anson Stevens-Bollen
1) Widespread lead contamination threatens children's health and
could triple household water bills
After President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency in Flint, Michigan, based on lead contamination of the city's water supply in January 2016, Reuters reporters MB Pell and Joshua Schneyer began an investigation of lead contamination nationwide. What they found was shocking.
Although many states and Medicaid rules require blood lead tests for young children, millions of children were not being tested. Using data they assembled from 21 states, Pell and Schneyer showed that 2,606 census tracts and 278 zip codes across the United States had levels of lead poisoning more than double the rates found in Flint at the peak of its contamination crisis. Of those, 1,100 communities had lead contamination rates "at least four times higher" than Flint.
In Flint, 5 percent of the children screened high blood lead levels. Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 2.5 percent of all U.S. children younger than six — about 500,000 children — have elevated blood lead levels.
But Pell and Schneyer's neighborhood focus allowed them to identify local hotspots "whose lead poisoning problems may be obscured in broader surveys," such as those focused on statewide or countywide rates. They found them in communities that "stretch from Warren, Pennsylvania ... where 36 percent of children tested had high lead levels, to ... Goat Island, Texas, where a quarter of tests showed poisoning."
"In some pockets of Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia, where lead poisoning has spanned generations," they wrote, "the rate of elevated tests over the last decade was 40 to 50 percent."
In January 2017, Schneyer and Pell reported that, based on their previous investigation, "From California to Pennsylvania, local leaders, health officials and researchers are advancing measures to protect children from the toxic threat. They include more blood-lead screening, property inspections, hazard abatement and community outreach programs."
But there's a deeper infrastructure problem involved, as Farron Cousins reported for DeSmogBlog in January 2017. "Lead pipes are time bombs" and water contamination is to be expected, Cousins wrote. The US relies on an estimated 1.2 million miles of lead pipes for municipal delivery of drinking water, and much of this aging infrastructure is reaching or has exceeded its lifespan.
In 2012 the American Water Works Association estimated that a complete overhaul of the nation's aging water systems would require an investment of $1 trillion over the next 25 years, which could triple household water bills. And that, Cousins wrote, could result in "pricing a third of United States citizens out of the water market."
2) Over six trillion dollars in unaccountable Army spending
In 1996, Congress passed legislation requiring all government agencies to undergo annual audits, but a July 2016 report by the Department of Defense's inspector general found that the Army alone has accumulated $6.5 trillion in expenditures that can't be accounted for over the past two decades.
As Dave Lindorff reported for the online news site This Can't Be Happening!, the DoD "has not been tracking or recording or auditing all of the taxpayer money allocated by Congress — what it was spent on, how well it was spent, or where the money actually ended up." And the Army wasn't alone. "Things aren't any better at the Navy, Air Force and Marines," he added.
The report appeared at a time when "politicians of both major political parties are demanding accountability for every penny spent on welfare.... Ditto for people receiving unemployment compensation," Lindorff wrote.
In March 2017, after Trump proposed a $52 billion increase in military spending, Thomas Hedges reported for The Guardian that, "the Pentagon has exempted itself without consequence for 20 years now, telling the Government Accountability Office that collecting and organizing the required information for a full audit is too costly and time-consuming."
The most recent DoD audit deadline was September 2017, yet neither the Pentagon, Congress, nor the media seem to have paid any attention.