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Press Freedom Groups Pressure President Obama to Do Better

A seemingly innocuous industrial park in the Utah desert has emerged as a hot spot in the fight for press freedom

President Barack Obama at the Presidential Forum in Las Vegas. (Photo: Center for American Progress/flickr/cc)

Built under a shroud of secrecy, the Utah Data Center is the NSA’s data storage and processing facility — a place that maximizes the agency's surveillance capacity, which includes the ability to track the phone calls of U.S. reporters and store their metadata for a lengthy period of time.

While whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed the extent of the government’s mass surveillance programs in 2013, news of the harassment and monitoring of journalists under the Obama administration predates the Snowden leak. 

Obama’s Department of Justice has relentlessly pursued Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Risen for refusing to reveal a confidential source for his 2006 book State of War. And documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, whose films examine America’s national security apparatus, was detained for questioning at U.S. border crossings more than 40 times between 2006–2012. 

These aren't isolated incidents. “The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration, when I was one of the editors involved in the Washington Post’s investigation of Watergate,” wrote former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. in a scathing 2013 report on the White House and the press.

It’s an embarrassing track record that includes snaring reporters’ phone data in mass-surveillance dragnets, issuing subpoenas to force reporters to reveal confidential sources, and using and abusing the outdated Espionage Act of 1917 to prosecute those who leak information to the media. 

This aggressive pursuit of sources has created a climate of hostility toward the press, best exemplified by calls from members of Congress and D.C. pundits for the prosecution of journalists who have worked with whistleblowers like Snowden.

On Monday, the Committee to Protect Journalists sent a letter to President Obama asking him to defend journalists’ right to report. (Free Press is part of a coalition of groups that support the CPJ initiative.)

The letter calls on the administration to take three concrete steps to improve its record on journalism:

1.  Prohibit the hacking and surveillance of journalists and media organizations.

2.  Limit aggressive prosecutions that ensnare journalists and intimidate whistleblowers.

3.  Prevent the harassment of journalists at U.S. borders.

Obama campaigned on a pledge that he would support a more open and transparent government as a corrective to the Bush administration’s secrecy. “Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people what they see on the ground,” he said last month in response to the unrest in Ferguson, Mo."

It’s a critique that should extend from the streets of Ferguson to Pennsylvania Avenue. The Obama administration needs to stop threatening independent journalism in a country that has upheld press freedom as a measure of democratic society from the beginning.

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Tim Karr

As the Campaign Director for Free Press and, Karr oversees campaigns on public broadcasting and noncommercial media, fake news and propaganda, journalism in crisis, and the future of the Internet. Before joining Free Press, Tim served as executive director of and vice president of Globalvision New Media and the Globalvision News Network.


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