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The White House has a bunch more work to do to convince journalists they won’t be the targets of overzealous government prosecutors or prying official eyes. That comes in the wake of the administration recently rediscovering that in any issue, the power of words is no match for deeds.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said it is looking to meet with high-ranking White House officials about a report it released earlier this month critical of the Obama administration’s treatment of the press — CPJ’s first-ever comprehensive report on press freedom in the U.S.
Joel Simon, executive director of the committee, has said CPJ sent a copy to the White House and asked for the sit-down. “We are going to be following up on that request and we actually hope to have some face-to-face dialogue,” he told an audience at a New America Foundation panel session Oct. 17, where he discussed the report and the issue.
WHY THIS MATTERSThe Committee to Protect Journalists delivered its first comprehensive report on U.S. press freedom, which took aim at the Obama administration.
Simon also said the committee was working to build “coalitions and awareness” because the White House doesn’t consider leak investigations and surveillance to be problems, or at least hasn’t heretofore — which explains policy as applied to the recent confiscation of Associated Press phone records related to a would-be Al Qaeda attack in Yemen.
Simon said he thinks the White House believed it had addressed the “flare-up” over the records’ confiscation with new Justice Department guidelines. “What this report says is, ‘You’re wrong,’” he added. “This is a problem, and a very significant problem.” Simon said he recognized the national security argument, but added, “National security in this country or any other country can never be used as a pretext to give the government authority to prevent people from getting the information they need.”
The report, “The Obama Administration and the Press: Leak Investigations and Surveillance in Post-9/11 America,” concluded that while President Obama came into office pledging transparency, he has “fallen short” of his promise. “Journalists and transparency advocates say the White House curbs routine disclosure of information and deploys its own media to evade scrutiny by the press,” the report stated.
In the wake of the report, CPJ is recommending that the White House (1) guarantee that journalists will not be prosecuted for receiving confidential or classified info; (2) be more transparent about the scope of NSA and other surveillance; (3) implement the revised Justice guidelines and prevent overly broad subpoenas; (4) stop bringing espionage charges against leakers of classified info; (5) increase overall government transparency; and (6) advocate for the broadest possible definition of “journalist” in a shield law.
“The CPJ report is powerful because it weaves multiple strands from the headlines into a single fabric,” said attorney Kurt Wimmer, chairman of Covington & Burling’s privacy and data security practice. “That fabric shows a crackdown on national security reporting by stopping sources from [talking] with reporters.”
Wimmer said he thinks a federal shield law is overdue; he represents a 70-member coalition, including the National Association of Broadcasters, pushing for the shield. “Congress can help here by passing a federal shield law so that reporters can protect confidential sources while maintaining a proper balance with national security interests,” he added.
The administration is on the record as supporting the law but one sticking point could be the definition of “covered entity.”