The Committee to Protect Journalists has released its first-ever special report on freedom of the press in the United States. For many years, CPJ has documented attacks on journalists in many countries around the world. The report focused on how policies and practices of the Obama administration disrupt relationships between journalists and government sources, allow officials to circumvent scrutiny by the press, and create a chilling environment for whistleblowers who might otherwise serve as journalistic sources. The report also discusses the ramifications of NSA surveillance, which leaves journalists and their sources reluctant to communicate electronically.
The report paints a picture of increasing press restrictions beginning just after 9/11 and culminating with the current administration, which is described as uniquely resistant to accountability to the press. Written by former executive editor of the Washington Post Leonard Downie Jr and CPJ’s Sara Rafsky, the report relied on information gathered through extensive interviews with dozens of members of the press. Individual journalists are cited throughout to provide candid insights into the daily experiences of journalists in the United States today.
In total, the report and the concomitant recommendations show that Obama Administration policies around classification, whistle-blower prosecution, and surveillance are threatening investigative journalism.
Among several issues the report surfaced, the authors heavily criticized Obama’s record on classification. They called on Obama to do more to correct the problems of overclassification, citing concerns raised by Senator Ron Wyden and transparency advocate Steven Aftergood. The report discussed how, despite Obama’s promises of embracing transparency when he first took office, Freedom of Information Act requests frequently were left unanswered, delayed, or denied.
The report also highlighted the bureaucratic bloat that stemmed from gross overclassification, noting:
By 2011, more than 4 million Americans had security clearances for access to classified information of one kind or another, according to a U. S. Intelligence Community report to Congress required by the 2010 Intelligence Authorization Act, and more and more information was being classified as secret. In that year alone, government employees made 92 million decisions to classify information—one measure of what [Harvard Law School professor Jack] Goldsmith called "massive, massive over-classification."
In addition, the report detailed the aggressive overprosecution of whistle-blowers under the Obama administration. The report noted that Obama’s administration had charged six government employees and two contractors—including Edward Snowden— with felony criminal prosecutions under the 1917 Espionage Act for leaking information to the press. This is more than all of such prosecutions in all previous U.S. administrations. The report discussed at length individual prosecutions as well the fact that government officials were fearful and reluctant to speak with the media.
There were also numerous examples of the government getting subpoenas to learn more about journalists communicating with sources.
CPJ also noted that extensive surveillance by the NSA, which has recently been confirmed and detailed by the Edward Snowden leaks, have "added to the fearful atmosphere surrounding contacts between American journalists and government sources." The NSA’s dragnet data collection programs left many journalists with doubts about their ability to protect their sources or conduct investigations. Washington Post national security reporter Dana Priest noted that, "People think they’re looking at reporters’ records. I’m writing fewer things in e-mail. I’m even afraid to tell officials what I want to talk about because it’s all going into one giant computer."
CPJ also released a series of recommendations to the Obama Administration, including a call to end the practice of bringing espionage charges against people who leak classified information to journalists and more transparency around the scope and nature of the National Security Agency and other surveillance activities as they are being applied to domestic and international journalists.
Overall, CPJ’s report describes a government actively avoiding accountability and transparency while enacting policies that undermine an independent media. The real victim of such policies is the general public, which relies on an informed media to hold government officials to account. We echo CPJ’s concerns and urge the administration to act swiftly to address the serious issues of press freedom that were outlined in the report.