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Press Freedom

U.S. Accused of Unprecedented Assault on Press Freedom

WASHINGTON, Oct 11 2013 (IPS) - Press freedom advocates here charge that the administration of President Barack Obama is engaged in a war on “leaks” of secret information that is without parallel in this country.

This aggressive stance is having a chilling effect on U.S. press freedoms, they say. On one hand, government officials are becoming increasingly wary of speaking with journalists. On the other, reporters fear future criminal prosecutions over leaked information.

“One of the reasons behind this tense atmosphere is that the scope of national security as currently defined by the government is extremely broad." -- Steven Aftergood of FAS

On Thursday, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a non-profit organisation promoting press freedoms worldwide, released its first comprehensive report on the Obama administration’s surveillance practices and their effects on the domestic press. During the time that Obama has been in office, the number of individuals prosecuted by the Department of Justice (DOJ) for leaked information under the 1917 Espionage Act has seen a staggering increase.

“The Obama administration’s war on leaks … is in stark conflict with the president’s goal of increasing the federal government’s transparency,” Leonard Downie, Jr., the vice president at large of The Washington Post, said Thursday at the report’s Washington release.

Since 2009, a total of six government officials, plus two private contractors, have been subject to criminal prosecutions under the Espionage Act. Prior to that, only three officials had been charged in over nine decades. (Because of the government shutdown, the U.S. Department of Justice was unable to comment for this story.)

“The extremely aggressive approach by the current administration has led to an unusually high number of leak prosecutions,” Steven Aftergood, the director of the Government Secrecy Programme at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a security-focused non-profit organisation here, told IPS.

“This has created a polarised atmosphere where journalists are simply frightened by the prospect of future prosecution,” he said.

Broad definitions

Public outrage here exploded over another recent incident that saw the Department of Justice secretly seizing Associated Press (AP) telephone records. The secret seizures were part of a DOJ investigation over an AP story that had disclosed a covert U.S. intelligence operation in Yemen.

The DOJ informed the AP of the seizures in May, three months after it had seized the material. Following the AP incident, last month the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a new Media Shield Law, legislation that would protect journalists from being forced to reveal confidential material.

Yet critics, including many journalists, have warned that the law offers only a very narrow definition of journalists, as those individuals who are formally associated with a news media organisation.

“What is worrisome about the new shield law is that, for instance, it would restrict online bloggers and journalists who aren’t connected to a news media organisation from carrying out any journalistic act,” Jillian York, the director of the International Freedom of Expression programme at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an advocacy group, told IPS.

“Of course, that depends on your definition of a journalistic act. Although it’s not a clear definition, it should be as broad as possible so as to safeguard the free flow of information.”

Indeed, much of the current debate seems to be centred on the breadth or narrowness of definitions.

“One of the reasons behind this tense atmosphere is that the scope of national security as currently defined by the government is extremely broad,” FAS’s Aftergood says. “It includes areas that many people think ought to be subject to public debate.”

So, while the public and the media would like to see a freer environment for the flow of information, the government has so far adopted a broad view of national security that has enabled it to withhold large amounts of information from the public.

This change has come at a high price, critics say.

“What the recent leaks tell us is not just that the government is trying to restrict freedom of expression,” Larry Siems, the director of the Freedom to Write Programme at the PEN American Center, an advocacy group advancing free expression, told IPS. “They’re telling us that our government has been engaging in activities that run counter to our laws and to international humanitarian law.”

War on leaks

The most recent example of leaked information involves Edward J. Snowden, the former security contractor who was charged under the Espionage Act for leaking classified government information on phone and Internet surveillance by the U.S. and British governments. Snowden was recently granted asylum in Russia, as he faces prosecution here in the United States.

The Obama administration has also implemented a series of surveillance practices that have made it increasingly troublesome for government officials to approach the press.

The Insider Threat Programme, for instance, aims to eliminate leaks by government officials, ordering federal employees to report any suspicious behaviour by their colleagues. Forced to spy on each other, government officials are now reportedly becoming increasingly less willing to respond to calls from the media, for fear of future repercussions, according to The Washington Post’s Downey, Jr.

The administration’s mass surveillance is impacting on foreign journalists working in the United States, too.

“One of our more troublesome findings is that foreign journalists currently in the U.S. lack any legal protection U.S. reporters may now have,” CPJ’s Joel Simon told IPS. “Unfortunately, they need to operate under the assumption that their communication is not secure.”

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