Obama Continues To Hack Away At Press Freedoms

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    The New York Times (NYT) editorial board is calling out the Obama administration for “secretly combing through the phone records of reporters and editors at the Associated Press.” It’s a bold allegation that has drawn the ire of civil liberties groups and concerned citizens around the country in recent days.

    The NYT is not alone in its condemnation of the Department of Justice (DOJ). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) condemned the DOJ’s acts as “press intimidation,” saying it constitutes “an unacceptable abuse of power.” Additionally, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties organization, denounced the act, calling it “a terrible blow against the freedom of the press and the ability of reporters to investigate and report the news.”

    The phone records were allegedly seized as part of a yearlong investigation into the disclosure of classified information about a failed al-Qaeda plot that the Obama administration says poses a national security issue.

    Others took a less combative approach to the issue. Media Matters – “a progressive research and information center dedicated to analyzing and correcting conservative misinformation” – refused to call out the Obama administration for misconduct.

    “While it’s early in this story and we don’t have all the facts, this case raises important questions about the balance between a free press and effective national security,” Media Matters posted Tuesday. “For those interested in pushing back against partisan attacks while the rest of us grapple with the larger questions, here is language to guide you.”

    When editorial boards and civil liberties groups issued clear messages of condemnation, Media Matters published a “fact sheet” about the case, restating the widely publicized points of the ongoing case without condemning the president or the DOJ.

    Attorney General Eric H. Holder admitted to the spying last week, but refused to elaborate on the Obama administration’s reasons. James Cole, a deputy attorney general, was ambiguous as well, saying only that it was part of a “criminal investigation involving highly classified material” from early 2012.

    What is known is that the AP records seized covered 20 phone lines, including main office phones in New York City, Washington, D.C., Hartford, Conn. and the Congressional press gallery. The guidelines for such subpoenas, first enacted in 1972, require that requests for media information be narrow.

    In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of maintaining source secrecy in the case Branzburg v. Hayes. Paul Branzburg was a reporter for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., and wrote an article about hashish, an illegal drug. In the process of his investigation, he interviewed two hashish users, hiding their identities to protect them from criminal prosecution. After the article was published, police pressed Branzburg to give up his sources in order to prosecute the two sources.

    In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court found that Branzburg didn’t have to reveal his sources, setting an important precedent that has served as a shield law protecting journalists’ right to hide the identities of sources.

    Maintaining source anonymity is essential to a functioning free press, allowing journalists need the flexibility to write reports without fear of reprisal against them or their sources.

    This isn’t the first time that the Obama administration has been accused of attacking press freedoms. Previously, Obama promoted the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) granting broad powers to the executive branch. Critics of the law claim that it is now possible to send journalists to a penal colony, like Guantanamo Bay prison, for simply interviewing a source who could be deemed an enemy combatant or terrorist.

    “The NDAA frightens journalists because it turns us into criminals,” writes former CNN reporter Amber Lyon. “There are no provisions within the law to protect journalists. As journalists, we take a vow to never reveal our confidential sources. If the U.S. government, or corrupt corporations pressuring authorities, want information on our confidential sources, the NDAA gives them the power to indefinitely detain us by saying the refusal to reveal sources is an act that is ‘aiding terrorists.’”

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