WASHINGTON: The war on news leaks by President Barack Obama’s administration is becoming a threat to press freedom and democracy, a media watchdog group said yesterday.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, in a report based on interviews with dozens of experienced news professionals, said the US president’s actions have been in sharp contradiction to his promise of transparency and open government.
The report on the United States is unusual for the press freedom group, which has this year completed investigations on Burma, China, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and Tanzania. The only time the United States has been the subject of a CPJ report was 19 years ago, in a study on attacks on immigrant journalists.
CPJ executive director Joel Simon said the group decided to investigate US press freedom “because journalists told us that the relationship with the administration had deteriorated to the point where it makes it difficult for them to do their job.”
Former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie, author of the report, said he learned that “administration officials and employees are increasingly afraid to talk to the press” due to heightened scrutiny of leaks.
He said this is in large part due to efforts to prosecute six government employees and two contractors — including former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden — under the 1917 Espionage Act.
Downie said this was a chilling use of a law, used “only in three previous cases in the past nine decades”. Downie, now a professor of journalism at Arizona State University, said Obama has failed to live up to his pledge to make his administration the most transparent in American history.
Downie added that the Obama 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.”
He said the 30 experienced Washington journalists he interviewed for the report at a variety of news organizations “could not remember any precedent.”
Downie noted that the policies are also harmful to US efforts to promote press and Internet freedom around the world. Highlighted in the report is the use of the Espionage Act to crack down on news leaks. This was used to prosecute Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a State Department contract analyst who disclosed information about North Korea’s nuclear plans to a Fox News reporter.