War Still a Threat to Free Press

RCFP report even sees potential for bugging newsrooms

Press freedom remains one of the casualties of the war on terrorism, according to a new report by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP).

What Price Security?
Level of threat to a free press posed by the war on terrorism
Potential threat 3/2003 9/2002
*Increases in subpoenas; crackdowns on leaks
Source: Homefront Confidential, Third Edition; Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press
War-coverage ground rulesHighSevere
Closed military tribunalsHighHigh
Closed terrorism/immigration proceedingsSevereSevere
Restrictions on domestic coverageGuardedGuarded
U.S. Patriot ActElevatedGuarded
Attacks on reporter's privilege*ElevatedElevated
FOIA restrictionsSevereSevere
State actions to limit accessElevatedElevated

The government's terrorism threat level hadn't made it into the red at press time, but the threat that the war on terrorism poses to the electronic and print media is already at code red in two areas: freedom of information and access to immigration and terrorism proceedings. In addition, it is rising in another, raising the specter of newsroom wiretaps in the name of national security.

That's according to the third in a series of "Homefront Confidential" white papers from RCFP.

The report, released last week (online at rcfp.org), says access to information continues to be "severely threatened" by the government's efforts to shield the public from information. A spokesperson for the new department had not returned calls at press time.

For its previous report, in September 2002, the committee co-opted the government's color-coded threat-level scale to turn the tables and apply it to threats posed by
the government on information-gathering in various categories (see chart).

The threat level has been raised from guarded to elevated for the USA Patriot Act on news that the government plans to make it even tougher.

The act gives the FBI greater freedom to obtain records, as well as to track e-mail and tap phone conversations, "Although aimed at trapping terrorists, those provisions of the law could ensnare journalists and restrict their ability to report on the war on terrorism."

Case in point was the story two weeks ago, cited by Radio-Television News Directors Association President Barbara Cochran, that, last September, the government had intercepted and opened an overnight package sent from AP's Manila bureau to its Washington office. The FBI claimed that it contained sensitive information. AP countered that it contained an unclassified report that had already been discussed in open court. The package was seized by customs and turned over to the FBI.

An even stronger USA Patriot Act, a draft of which was obtained last month by the Center For Public Integrity, could conceivably allow for the wiretapping of news operations, according to a memo from the American Society of Newspaper Editors to its members two weeks ago.

In that alert, ASNE warns that protections instituted following disclosures that the Nixon administration had been wiretapping journalists would be weakened by the act. "If Patriot Act II passes, the government would be able to claim that journalists were passing information on to a foreign person or organization to justify an electronic wiretap of a newsroom. One could envision an attempt by the government to engage in spying on a newsroom in the United States when the 'foreign power' to whom the information is being supplied is the foreign bureau of a domestic news organization."

The RCFP threat level remains at "severe" for Freedom of Information issues. On that topic, the committee is doing more than just releasing color-coded reports. It has been working with the RTNDA and the Society of Professional Journalists to reform the 2002 Homeland Security Act (B&C, 3/17, p. 4). In concert with the Senate Government Affairs Committee, the groups last year drafted the Restoration of Freedom of Information Act of 2003 to clarify FOIA exemptions and protect whistleblowers by removing "unnecessary criminal penalties."

On the upside, the report lowered the threat level in the war-coverage category after the military decided to allow journalists to embed and provide, potentially, the most extensive war coverage to date.

In addition to the move to embed journalists, the report sees hopeful signs in a more questioning public. "They have started to object to the secret imprisonment of witnesses and immigrants," says the report. "They are asking hard questions about airline security. They want to know whether Afghan civilians have been killed by American air attacks, and they are questioning whether the information they have seen justifies war with Iraq."