As press freedom goes, so too does open government and democracy

I’m on the brink of having a Howard Beale moment.

This morning, Al Thompkins wrote that the Justice Department ‘better have a damned good explanation’ for seizing AP phone records. The nation is still waiting. So is the world.

This week, my Poynter colleagues and I are teaching on three continents. One of my colleagues is teaching in China. Another is in South Africa. I’m in Canada. Everywhere we go, we hear stories of governments trying to restrict journalists. South Africa has a new government secrecy bill; Turkey is trying to restrict reporting from border-town bombing sites; Pakistan ejected an American journalist trying to cover elections; and a Chinese journalist is in jail accused of publishing video that caused “a bad impression abroad.”

Recently, Reporters Without Borders ranked the U.S. 32nd on its list of countries in terms of press freedom. When I saw that the U.S. was ranked below Ghana and barely above El Salvador, I wondered if there must be some mistake. But now I wonder if that survey ranked our press freedom too high.

Thompkins is right. We need to know why notifying the Associated Press in advance of getting the records from Verizon “would pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation.”

Deputy United States Attorney General James Cole stated that such an intrusion was warranted and were “consistent with department policy.” Walter Pincus agrees.

US Attorney General Eric Holder, who recused himself from the investigation, said that “this was a very serious leak — a very, very serious leak,” “among the top two or three serious leaks that I’ve ever seen,” putting the American people “at risk” and that “trying to determine who was responsible for that required very aggressive action.”

Should that action have included a judge?

In the absence of a federal shield law for journalists, judicial oversight is a bulwark against tyranny.

As New Yorker general counsel Lynn Oberlander on the law behind the Justice Department seizure of AP phone records, the courts do not appear to have been involved:

If subpoenas had been served directly on the A.P. or its individual reporters, they would have had an opportunity to go to court to file a motion to quash the subpoenas. What would have happened in court is anybody’s guess—there is no federal shield law that would protect reporters from having to testify before a criminal grand jury—but the Justice Department avoided the issue altogether by not notifying the A.P. that it even wanted this information. Even beyond the outrageous and overreaching action against the journalists, this is a blatant attempt to avoid the oversight function of the courts.

The nation is seeing that the balance between government secrecy, civil liberties and freedom of the press has become far too weighted in favor of the federal government. Attorney General Holder defended the independence of the leak investigation last year before Congress.

If President Obama wants to retain credibility on the world stage or at home when he talks about open government and the rule of law, his administration will need to take a strong stance, as it did with respect to management flaws at the I.R.S. that allowed conservative groups to be targeted for tax audits.  As Nathaniel Heller pointed out this week, there’s some cognitive dissonance going on:

This administration’s track record on what can be argued are the easier bits of open government is more than laudable. An initial Open Government Directivehas been augmented with the new open data policy, and we’ve witnessed the launch of an international Open Government Partnership, which began as a White House brainchild. But during that very same period we’ve witnessed the administration getting worse on the politically harder bits: freedom of information response times have deteriorated, reporters are being chased down to divulge their sources, and now entire newsrooms are apparently being targeted in broad, scarily police state-style monitoring. What the heck is going on here?

There’s a lot at stake here, to dramatically understate the obvious.

As New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote today, “The ability of the press to report freely on its government is a cornerstone of American democracy. That ability is, by any reasonable assessment, under siege. Reporters get their information from sources. They need to be able to protect those sources and sometimes offer them confidentiality. If they can’t be sure about that – and it looks increasingly like they can’t – the sources will dry up. And so will the information.”

The White House, Congress, Department of Justice and the American people cannot afford to let that happen. Information is the life blood of democracy. A free press is core to its gathering and dissemination, as are whistleblowers who tell the nation when crimes and fraud are being committed behind closed doors. Prosecuting whistleblowers is antithetical to open government.

Our founding fathers understood this dynamic well:

“The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. “There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”

We need to know more about why this action was taken by the Department of Justice. We also need to know why there is a disconnect between the rhetoric expressed by the President of the United States, a constitutional law professor, regarding freedom of the press and the zealous actions of the Department of Justice towards leaks.

Josh Gerstein reports that the issue may lie with the White House’s “hands off style” with respect to the DoJ:

”This White House, out of concern to distance itself from what was seen as excess politicization of DOJ by the Bush administration, had not engaged DOJ at all on leak cases,” said Columbia University law professor David Pozen, who spent several months conducting a major review of the federal government’s love-hate relationship with national security leaks. ”

In previous White Houses, even those railed publicly against leaks, officials sent “cautionary signals to the Justice Department … urging restraint and sensitivity to political, policy and constitutional concerns,” Pozen said. But the administration’s distancing policy, said Pozen, meant that prosecutors were “being given more leash than they had previously to do what they do.”

If so, it’s long past time for President Obama to get more hands-on.

UPDATE: Both the president and his attorney general have acknowledged the criticism. In his remarks to the National Defense University on May 23rd, President Obama said that he was “I’m troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable” and told AG Holder to take action on the issue.

The Justice Department’s investigation of national security leaks offers a recent example of the challenges involved in striking the right balance between our security and our open society.  As Commander-in-Chief, I believe we must keep information secret that protects our operations and our people in the field.  To do so, we must enforce consequences for those who break the law and breach their commitment to protect classified information.  But a free press is also essential for our democracy.  That’s who we are.  And I’m troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.

Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs.  Our focus must be on those who break the law.  And that’s why I’ve called on Congress to pass a media shield law to guard against government overreach.  And I’ve raised these issues with the Attorney General, who shares my concerns.  So he has agreed to review existing Department of Justice guidelines governing investigations that involve reporters, and he’ll convene a group of media organizations to hear their concerns as part of that review.  And I’ve directed the Attorney General to report back to me by July 12th.

According to David Klaidman’s reporting, AG Holder regrets at least some of how the DoJ has proceeded, with respect to prosecuting leaks. (He personally approved a search-warrant application that equated the newsgathering activities of Fox News reporter James Rosen with criminal conduct.)

“While both of these cases were handled within the law and according to Justice Department guidelines,” he told The Daily Beast, “they are reminders of the unique role the news media plays in our democratic system, and signal that both our laws and guidelines need to be updated…This is an opportunity for the department to consider how we strike the right balance between the interests of law enforcement and freedom of the press.”

This morning, a Justice Department official told Mike Allen that the AG will be meeting with members of the media this week:

“Attorney General Eric Holder will hold meetings with several Washington bureau chiefs of national news organizations in the next two days as part of the review of existing Justice Department guidelines governing investigations that involve reporters. This review, which was announced by President Obama last Thursday, is consistent with the Attorney General’s long standing belief that protecting and defending the First Amendment is essential to our democracy. These meetings will begin a series of discussions that will continue to take place over the coming weeks. During these sessions, the Attorney General will engage with a diverse and representative group of news media organizations, including print, wires, radio, television, online media and news and trade associations. Further discussions will include news media executives and general counsels as well as government experts in intelligence and investigative agencies.”

Per Michael Calderone, however, “the actual discussion is expected to be off the record.”

UPDATE 2: The Department of Justice released a report on news media policies (PDF) on July 12th.

“The Department of Justice is firmly committed to ensuring our nation’s security, and protecting the American people, while at the same time safeguarding the freedom of the press,” said United States Attorney General Eric Holder, in a prepared statement. “These revised guidelines will help ensure the proper balance is struck when pursuing investigations into unauthorized disclosures. While these reforms will make a meaningful difference, there are additional protections that only Congress can provide. For that reason, we continue to support the passage of media shield legislation. I look forward to working with leaders from both parties to achieve this goal, and am grateful to all of the journalists, free speech advocates, experts, and Administration leaders who have come together in recent weeks – in good faith, and with mutual respect – to guide and inform the changes we announce today.”

Excerpt from report (emphases are mine):

First, the Department will modify its policy concerning search warrants covered by the PPA involving members of the news media to provide that work product materials and other documents may be sought under the “suspect exception” of the PPA only when the member of the news media is the focus of a criminal investigation for conduct not connected to ordinary newsgathering activities. Under this revised policy, the Department would not seek search warrants under the PPA’s suspect exception if the sole purpose is the investigation of a person other than the member of the news media.

Second, the Department would revise current policy to elevate the current approval requirements and require the approval of the Attorney General for all search warrants and court orders issued pursuant to 18 U.S.C. directed at members of the news media. In addition, as part of the new approval process the Attorney General would consider the factors in 28 CFR. 50.10 — which currently apply to subpoenas to members of the news media or to communication service providers for the telephone toll records of members of the news media, but not to search warrants or 2703(d) orders — including demonstrating that the information sought is essential to a successful investigation, that other reasonable alternative investigative steps to obtain the information have been exhausted, and that the request has been narrowly tailored to obtain only the information necessary for the investigation (including the use of search methods that limit any intrusion into potentially protected materials, as described above). The presumption of notice, and standards applicable to requests for delayed notice, will also apply to search warrants and 2703(d) orders that seek access to records of members of the news media related to newsgathering activities. A thorough evaluation of relevant considerations, including these factors, will be presented to the Deputy Attorney General, and ultimately the Attorney General, for authorization. This policy change will bring the approval protocols for search warrants issued under the PPA and 27D3(d) orders in line with those required for other investigative tools that implicate records of members of the news media.

The complete report and set of revised policies are online on Document Cloud, via New York Times reporter Charlie Savage, or at For more analysis, read his report for the New York Times regarding AG Holder tightening the rules for obtaining reporters’ data. Now, the onus to protect freedom of the press in the United States is now upon Congress, including recognizing the public interest of preserving acts of journalism through enactment of a federal shield law. How Congress or the DoJ defines journalists will have real consequences, in terms of how their electronic communications are acquired or monitored. Marcy Wheeler reads this policy as the DoJ moving closer to instituting a physical press. Journalism professor Dan Gillmor reads that to mean that licensing journalists will be proposed in the United States.

Historical parallels aside…

…the question of “who is a journalist?” is of vital public interest, as Jeff Jarvis explored in The Guardian today. A 2010 report from the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) concluded that licensing journalists threatens independent media and press freedoms. The First Amendment Center similarly argues that licensing journalists is a bad idea. Congress and the Department of Justice would be well advised to steer clear of registering the media, which has historically been used around the world by governments to delegitimize reporting and speech officials do not wish published, from reporting on corruption to waste, fraud or embarrassing actions.

At a time when technology has democratized reporting in unprecedented ways, enabling individuals to commits acts of journalism around the world, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that freedom of the press now applies to everyone.


UPDATE: On January 14, 2015, U.S. Attorney General Holder issued a memorandum (PDF) laying out new guidelines for how the Department of Justice will obtain information or records from the media.

“These revised guidelines strike an appropriate balance between law enforcement’s need to protect the American people, and the news media’s role in ensuring the free flow of information,” Holder said, in a statement. “This updated policy is in part the result of the good-faith dialogue the department has engaged in with news industry representatives over the last several months. These discussions have been very constructive and I am grateful to the members of the media who have worked with us throughout this process.”

These guidelines broaden protections for the media, as Josh Gerstein reported for Politico, with caveats:

…the revised guidelines make clear that Justice Department personnel must get high-level approval—usually from the attorney general personally—before going to court to enforce subpoenas other federal agencies sometimes issue to reporters or their phone or internet providers. Such disputes have arisen or loomed with various agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, whose officials subpoenaed travel bloggers in 2009 and took part in the search of a Washington Times writer’s home in 2013.

Details of the new policy made public late Wednesday showed it also satisifed a particular request media advocates had made: that department lawyers be required to get a second round of high-level approvals before moving to enforce a subpoena that was authorized at some earlier time. DOJ attorneys will have to check in with the Criminal Division in Washington before making such a move, the revised guidelines say.

The revised rules continue to give prosecutors more leeway in pursuing journalists whom the U.S. Government believes are part of a foreign country’s intelligence services or tied to some other foreign power.

9 thoughts on “As press freedom goes, so too does open government and democracy

  1. Thank you Alex for this post and your context. Interesting point about a Howard Beale moment. As for me, I’m having a bit if a George Santayana moment, watching history repeat itself. In fact, maybe to play off his famous quote: Those who remember history are condemned to watch those that don’t as they relearn and repeat all its lessons, again and again.

    Or maybe it is more of a Battlestar Galactica moment: “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.”

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  4. “When I first wrote The New Newsocracy in 2009, (available in .pdf, per Alex’s request), I set it in Armenia because it was a (relatively) young media ecosystem from a complex past. I hoped that the government’s soft censorship, through a combination of regulatory, economic and extra-judicial measures – while not unique – was part of a common, but increasingly obsolete, part of history. Looking at things now, and most recently the experiences of Alan Rusbridger, Glenn Greenwald, and David Miranda, it seems as though the arc may be heading in the other direction.

    Hopefully, this thesis is a useful exploration of the mechanics of a restrictive media environment. Both the snapshot of Armenia and the wider observations about the evolution of the Internet could probably use an update, but the themes, focal points, and trends illustrated are (I believe) even more relevant now as than they were then.

    It’s important to say that the solutions I suggested were aimed at a faculty with a strong focus on international development, and so were framed for that community of practice. My beliefs about the appropriate role for the international development community in the evolution of journalism and media markets are significantly more nuanced, after several years of working in related fields.

    Given Armenia’s situation at the time, I had hoped that the international development community could play a role in bridging the early stage funding and market gaps for their emerging, independent press. That said, as the intervening years have shown, many are still searching for viable business models and the kind of independence that comes with them. Some of journalism’s premier institutions, such as the Washington Post, are now owned by individuals who, though deserving of the benefit of the doubt, aren’t held in check by anyone other than the readership.

    Similarly, at the time, I’d understood crowdsourcing more specifically than it has come to be popularly understood. My recommendations at the end of the paper, though using the term crowdsourcing, were focused on diversifying mediums, platforms, sources, regulatory regimes, and distribution mechanisms in order to avoid the vulnerability that arises from the creation of single points of failure. In some instances (and under some definitions of crowdsourcing) the recommendations apply, and in others, less so. Still, the hope is that by working through a more participatory and multi-platform journalism ecosystem, we can collectively make it harder for institutions to coerce soft and self- censorship.

    As recent events demonstrate, there is little question that the struggle for these freedoms is as alive and as international as they ever have been.”

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