Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters and press freedom organizations gathered at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. at 1 p.m. Thursday to voice their support for New York Times journalist James Risen's right to protect his sources.
Preceding the event, a petition signed by over 125,000 supporters was delivered to the Justice Department asking it to "halt all legal action against Mr. Risen and to safeguard the freedom of journalists to maintain the confidentiality of their sources."
"'There is no such thing as reporter’s privilege.' You read the government’s brief in the Fourth Circuit appeal, that’s what they say,' Risen explained at the event. "So they turned this case into a showdown over the First Amendment and the freedom of the press of the United States."
Nine-time Emmy Award winner and former daytime television star Phil Donahue also spoke.
Phil Donahue outside DOJ to support NYT James Risen's efforts to protect confidential source. pic.twitter.com/aH2x6ekqQF
— M. Scott Mahaskey (@smahaskey) August 14, 2014
The conference was organized by RootsAction and supported by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, the Government Accountability Project, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and Reporters Without Borders. Speakers included both high-profile journalists and representatives of the supporting organizations.
"These type of aggressive prosecutions send a dangerous signal to governments elsewhere that would seek to use national security and antistate charges as a cover to crack down on press freedom," said Courtney Radsch of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Risen explained to those gathered at the conference that the ongoing fight he's engaged in with the Justice Department has implications much larger than those that will affect him personally. "It’s about some basic issues that affect all journalists and Americans," he said. "The real reason I’m doing this is for the future of journalism.""These type of aggressive prosecutions send a dangerous signal to governments elsewhere that would seek to use national security and antistate charges as a cover to crack down on press freedom."
—Courtney Radsch, the Committee to Protect Journalists
The Risen case has been six years in the making; in June, after the Supreme Court rejected Risen's final appeal that reporter's privilege protects him from complying with the DOJ request, giving the department full legal authority to subpoena him, the New York Times called it "the most serious confrontation between the government and the press in recent history." Through it all, Risen has continually pledged to do jail time rather than release his source. If the DOJ decides to still subpoena Risen despite the overwhelming support for him from fellow members of the press and the public, "we will make clear that [Risen] is not going to testify and then there would have to be a contempt hearing," Risen's attorney, Joel Kurtzberg, told the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press back in June. The Department of Justice has brought criminal cases against eight journalists under President Obama, compared to three brought under all previous administrations combined.
Interestingly, Thursday's conference began just moments after President Obama spoke concerning the recent police crackdown in Ferguson, Missouri on both protesters and the press, saying, "Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs." Earlier Thursday, before the president's statement on Ferguson, a DOJ spokesperson sent a tweet out in support of the two reporters arrested overnight in Ferguson. When CNN's Jake Tapper sent out a response, the focus of the online discussion broadened to include Risen, and press freedom more generally:
@brianefallon how do you distinguish between the "gutsy" reporters and the one the administration is threatening to put in jail?
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) August 14, 2014
Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review after Obama's statement, David Uberti noted that "the coincidental timing puts a spotlight on a White House that has repeatedly defended its claim as the most transparent administration in history."
On Twitter, many advocates of press freedom were quick to make the same point:
Obama: "Police should not be arresting or bullying journalists who are trying to do their job" Right, that's his job. http://t.co/Tp1FxOn086
— Sam Husseini (@samhusseini) August 14, 2014
Obama: no "bullying or arresting journalists who are trying to do their jobs" meanwhile, there's James Risen http://t.co/zjPAQOrwdz
— Freedom of the Press (@FreedomofPress) August 14, 2014
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) August 14, 2014
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) August 14, 2014
On Wednesday, the Newspaper Guild also announced that Risen will be honored with the Herbert Block Freedom Award.
"He dug for information, developed sources who trusted him and ultimately exposed some of the hard truths behind the war on terrorism," said the guild's president, Bernie Lunzer. "Without jeopardizing national security, he told Americans what their government wouldn't. That is his job, the job of all journalists."
Click here to sign the petition in support of Risen.