Recent revelations that the Department of Justice secretly seized the phone records of numerous Associated Press journalists last year has had a "chilling effect" on journalism, scaring away sources and contacts who might provide vital information, AP chief Gary Pruitt said in a speech to the National Press Club on Wednesday.
"Some longtime trusted sources have become nervous and anxious about talking with us," Pruitt said.
AP revealed last month that the Department of Justice had secretly obtained two months worth of private phone records from the news agency in 2012 in an attempt to hunt down the source of information leaked to them and used in a May 2012 story.
Upon the revelations, Pruitt had called the seizure of records a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" and a "serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news."
And Pruitt was right. On Wednesday Pruitt stated:
Before coming over here to talk to you today, I thought I should get a sense of how the seizure of AP’s phone records by the DOJ is affecting our reporters. It’s been six weeks, after all, and of course we now know that our phone records aren’t the only ones being collected by the government.
What I heard from our journalists should alarm everyone in this room.
The actions of the DOJ against AP are already having an impact beyond the specifics of this case. Some longtime trusted sources have become nervous and anxious about talking with us -- even on stories unrelated to national security. In some cases, government employees we once checked in with regularly will no longer speak to us by phone. Others are reluctant to meet in person. [...]
And I can tell you that this chilling effect on newsgathering is not just limited to AP. Journalists from other news organizations have personally told me that it has intimidated both official and nonofficial sources from speaking to them as well.
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The freedom of the press is an essential Constitutional right that has been threatened by the DOJ's actions, Pruitt told the crowd.
"The DOJ's actions could not have been more tailor-made to comfort authoritarian regimes that want to suppress their own news media," he said.
In the speech Pruitt gave extensive detail over the DOJ's overreach and concluded with some essential steps he sees fit to protect the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press, including a federal shield law "enacted with teeth in it" to protect reporters from "such unilateral and secret government action":
First: We want the Department of Justice to recognize the right of the press to advance notice and a chance to be heard before its records are taken by the government. This would have given AP the chance to point out the many failings of the subpoena. We believe notice was required under existing regulations; if the DOJ sees it differently, then the regulations must be strengthened to remove any doubt.
Second: We want judicial oversight. We need to ensure that proper checks and balances are maintained. In the AP phone records case, the Justice Department determined, on its own, that advance notice could be skipped, with no checks from any other branch of government. Denying constitutional rights by executive fiat is not how this government should work.
Third: We want the DOJ guidelines updated to bring them into the 21st century. The guidelines were created before the Internet era. They didn’t foresee emails or text messages. The guidelines need to ensure that the protections afforded journalists from the forced disclosure of information encompass all forms of communication.
Fourth: We want a federal shield law enacted with teeth in it that will protect reporters from such unilateral and secret government action.
Fifth: We want the Department to institutionalize formally what Attorney General Holder has said publicly: that the Justice Department will not prosecute any reporter for doing his or her job. The Department should not criminalize -- or threaten to criminalize -- journalists for doing their jobs, such as by calling them co-conspirators under the Espionage Act, as they did Fox reporter James Rosen. This needs to be part of an established directive, not only limited to the current administration.