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Ear to the Ground

Journalist Protection Group Denounces Obama Administration on Press Freedoms

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Posted on Oct 12, 2013
stevendepolo (CC BY 2.0)

The first-ever report on press freedoms released Thursday by the Committee to Protect Journalists—a group the American Journalism Review called “Journalism’s Red Cross”—“powerfully underscores just how extreme is the threat to press freedom posed by [the Obama] administration,” Glenn Greenwald writes at The Guardian.

“Written by former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie, Jr.,” Greenwaled continues, “the report offers a comprehensive survey of the multiple ways that the Obama presidency has ushered in a paralyzing climate of fear for journalists and sources alike, one that severely threatens the news-gathering process.”

The assessment begins: “In the Obama administration’s Washington, government officials are increasingly afraid to talk to the press.” Downie’s summary of what Greenwald calls “the most shameful aspects of the Obama record” include:

Six government employees, plus two contractors including Edward Snowden, have been subjects of felony criminal prosecutions since 2009 under the 1917 Espionage Act, accused of leaking classified information to the press—compared with a total of three such prosecutions in all previous U.S. administrations. Still more criminal investigations into leaks are under way. Reporters’ phone logs and e-mails were secretly subpoenaed and seized by the Justice Department in two of the investigations, and a Fox News reporter was accused in an affidavit for one of those subpoenas of being ‘an aider, abettor and/or conspirator’ of an indicted leak defendant, exposing him to possible prosecution for doing his job as a journalist. In another leak case, a New York Times reporter has been ordered to testify against a defendant or go to jail.”

The report includes details about how NSA revelations have frightened journalists and their sources into postures of extreme caution when considering contacting one another:

‘I worry now about calling somebody because the contact can be found out through a check of phone records or e-mails,’ said veteran national security journalist R. Jeffrey Smith of the Center for Public Integrity, an influential nonprofit government accountability news organization in Washington. ‘It leaves a digital trail that makes it easier for the government to monitor those contacts,’ he said.”

Greenwald notes that “It quotes New York Times national security reporter Scott Shane as saying that sources are ‘scared to death.’ It quotes New York Times reporter David Sanger as saying that ‘this is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered.’ And it notes that New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan previously wrote that ‘it’s turning out to be the administration of unprecedented secrecy and unprecedented attacks on a free press.’ ”

In consideration of all this, Downie concludes:

The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration, when I was one of the editors involved in The Washington Post’s investigation of Watergate. The 30 experienced Washington journalists at a variety of news organizations whom I interviewed for this report could not remember any precedent.”

And Greenwald states: “[T]his pernicious dynamic extends far beyond national security,” with the report saying “Ellen Weiss, Washington bureau chief for E.W. Scripps newspapers and stations, said ‘the Obama administration is far worse than the Bush administration’ in trying to thwart accountability reporting about government agencies.”

Greenwald goes on to say that the report “identifies at least a dozen other longtime journalists making similar observations. The report ends by noting the glaring irony that Obama aggressively campaigned on a pledge to usher in The Most Transparent Administration Ever™. Instead, as the New Yorker’s investigative reporter Jane Mayer recently said about the Obama administration’s attacks: ‘It’s a huge impediment to reporting, and so chilling isn’t quite strong enough, it’s more like freezing the whole process into a standstill.’ ”

Greenwald concludes by saying, “Back in 2006, back when I was writing frequently about the Bush administration’s attacks on press freedom, the focus was on mere threats to take some of these actions, and that caused severe anger from vocal progressives. Now, as this new report documents, we have moved well beyond the realm of mere threats into undeniable reality, and the silence is as deafening as the danger is pronounced.”

For the purposes of democracy, investigative reporters form an essential part of the public. One wonders whether the Obama administration’s increasing hostility toward journalists, editors and publishers will frighten members of the traditional press—who eschew any and all claims to activism—into becoming the open campaigners for public welfare their fellow citizens need them to be.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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