Journalists Push Back On Gov’t Surveillance

WASHINGTON — The White House has more work to do to convince journalists they won’t be the targets of overzealous government prosecutors or prying official eyes.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said it is seeking a meeting with high-ranking White House officials about a report it released earlier this month critical of the Obama administration’s treatment of the press — the group’s firstever comprehensive report on U.S. press freedom.

Joel Simon, executive director of the committee, has said the CPJ sent a copy of the report to the White House and asked for the meeting. “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 an Oct. 17 New America Foundation panel session about the report and the issue.

Simon also said the committee was working to build “coalitions and awareness” because the White House doesn’t see this [leak investigations and surveillance] as a problem,” or at least hadn’t before. He said he thinks the adminstration believed it had addressed the “flareup” over the confiscation of Associated Press phone records with new Justice Department guidelines.

“What this report says is: ‘You’re wrong,’ ” Simon said. “This is a problem, and a very significant problem.’ “

In the wake of that report, the CPJ recommends that the White House: 1) guarantee that journalists will not be prosecuted for receiving confidential or classified information; 2) be more transparent about the scope of NSA and other surveillance; 3) implement the revised Justice Department guidelines and prevent overly broad subpoenas; 4) stop bringing espionage charges against leakers of classified information; 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,” attorney Kurt Wimmer, chairman of Covington & Burling’s privacy and data security practice, said. “ In combination with the court’s recent reluctance to allow reporters to protect their confidential sources, the trend is clear. The public will be less well-informed, even though we need full reporting on national security issues now more than ever.”

Wimmer, who represents a 70-member coalition of TV journalists, said he thinks a federal shield law is overdue.

“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 said.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.