At a press briefing last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned darkly of “the dramatic growth in the number of unauthorized disclosures of classified national security information in the past several months.” He suggested that his Justice Department would begin “reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas.” It was not a subtle threat.
Numerous press freedom organizations were quick to respond. The Freedom of the Press Foundation issued a statement saying, “Sessions’ comments seem intended to have a chilling effect on journalism, by making reporters and their sources think twice before publishing information that the government does not like.”
Gregg Leslie, legal defense director with the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, is also concerned.
“In the past, we would assume it would be politically unacceptable to bring a prosecution against a journalist,” Leslie tells The Progressive, in an interview before Sessions’s remarks. “The more contempt that is expressed for journalists, the more disrespect shown for what they do, it’s frightening to think that it becomes more politically acceptable.”
While journalists aren’t stopping their work due to fear of prosecution, Leslie says the current level of concern is “the most heightened time I’ve seen even though I was here right after 9/11 and there were a lot of worries about clampdowns on access to information.”
Leslie is worried that the Trump team could step up Espionage Act prosecutions against leakers and use it against journalists as well. This would continue a pattern set by President Barack Obama, whose administration used this law against eight leakers, more than all previous administrations combined.
“I think both the current Attorney General and the President have expressed an interest in really going after both parties in that kind of leak situation and that’s very worrisome for journalists,” Leslie says.
Trump reportedly began his now-infamous February 14 private meeting with former FBI Director James Comey in the Oval Office by suggesting that Comey put journalists in jail for publishing classified information. The subject of leaks has also come up frequently in Trump’s attacks on the legitimacy of the press.
On May 28, Trump tweeted, “It is my opinion that many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media.” And later that same morning included in another tweet: “#FakeNews is the enemy!”
It is my opinion that many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 28, 2017
“It’s the atmosphere that's really worrisome,” Leslie explains. Already, he says, “every time somebody writes about a controversial topic, they’re much more likely to get violent blowback from viewers or readers. And that’s worrisome. Everybody’s gotten hate mail before. But what we’re seeing is a sharp increase in the number and the anger expressed in the hate mail that journalists are receiving.”
Reporters in public settings are also finding that people are becoming “more violent toward the media than they have been in the past,” such as the recent case of Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs who was physically attacked by Republican candidate Greg Gianforte while asking a question.
Alexandra Ellerbeck, senior Americas and U.S. research associate at the Committee to Protect Journalists, agrees that Trump and others in his administration are creating a dangerous situation for journalists.
“I do think there is an environment where journalists are systematically discredited and that this exposes them to greater threats,” she tells The Progressive. “I think it’s also pretty clear that part of this constant discrediting of the press, part of this constant attack is an effort to make it harder for journalists to do their job and to hold power to account.”
Just two days before Sessions’s comments, a group of more than two dozen press freedom organizations including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press launched a new website to begin to “publicly document press freedom incidents in the United States.”
In a video from May posted on YouTube, the Committee to Protect Journalists noted that then-Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (now White House Chief of Staff) General John Kelly had joked that President Trump should use a sword on the press. The video warns that such comments “could serve to normalize attacks on the media in repressive countries.”
The group monitors and documents threats to journalists around the globe. While a one-to-one correlation is difficult to establish, Ellerbeck thinks the vilification of journalists here can affect the safety of their colleagues in other countries.
“I think the attacks on the press in the United States give cover for authoritarian governments abroad,” Ellerbeck says. “We’ve seen the fake news epithet adopted in China, Syria and Russia. We’ve seen [President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan in Turkey cheer on Trump, and we saw [Russian President Vladimir] Putin sort of lean over and joke to Trump ‘are these the reporters that insulted you?’ A wink and a nod between some of these more authoritarian leaders that should be feeling under extreme pressure right now for their human rights abuses and instead are being given a free pass.”
For instance, Ellerbeck says, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a statement last February saying, “We respect rights, but not the rights of anarchy.” He added that “in the United States itself, CNN and some others could not get into the White House because Donald Trump sees them as causing anarchy.” It appeared to be a veiled threat against news outlets in his own country.
In May, Ellerbeck and Committee to Protect Journalists executive director Joel Simon published an op-ed in The Washington Post saying: “When Trump calls the media the ‘enemy of the American people,’ he provides fodder for dictators around the world to justify their own press abuses.”
While journalists in the United States do not face the same risks as journalists in many other countries (the recent murder of Mexican journalist Javier Valdez sparked an international day of action), Ellerbeck still sees reasons for concern.
“We’ve seen a lot of individual journalists who’ve gotten singled out by Trump or people affiliated with him, who are facing death threats, facing doxxing [the publishing of a journalist’s personal information on the Internet], getting anti-Semitic pamphlets in the mail or having their parents get them,” she says. “That’s one area where we’ve seen a significant increase in incidents.”
How should the press respond to the target that Trump has painted on their back? Both Leslie and Ellerbeck call for heightened vigilance.
“We’re doing a lot of the work we’ve always done—trying to improve access to courts and to government records and meetings,” Leslie says. “But there is more of an attempt, especially with our litigating attorneys, to get more information about how the government pursues leak investigations. And what instruments they use, and whether they’re going too far in trying to get journalists’ information through secretive procedures.”
Ellerbeck, a contributor to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ new book, Attacks on the Press: The New Face of Censorship, agrees: “I’ve been impressed by the level of cooperation and coordination that we’ve seen among the press freedom groups and civil rights groups to respond to these attempts suppress freedom. And I do think that it’s important to have that united response when we start seeing more leak prosecutions or in the event that journalists start getting subpoenaed to testify or in the event of surveillance.”
The goal, Ellerbeck says, should be to ensure that attacks on the press don’t become the new normal. “I think that there need to be coordinated legal efforts and coordinated advocacy efforts. I think that there are still a lot of allies in the U.S. government who care a lot about press freedom.”