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A group of organisations sent a letter on 24 May to US Attorney General Eric Holder demanding a full and transparent report on the Department of Justice’s secret investigations into journalists and whistleblowers.
Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, called the Justice Department’s actions “appalling”.
“This is not just a matter of concern for journalists or newsrooms; it’s an issue at the heart of our democracy”, Aaron said in a statement.
The issue unfolded as the Justice Department sought out the source of government leaks by seizing phone records from Associated Press reporters. The records were obatined through a secret subpeona, which did not give the AP the normal right to repsond to the request. The records included office and personal lines for the reporters. The Justice Department has yet to officially inform the AP why it had sought the records.
The full text of the letter:
May 24, 2013
Attorney General Eric Holder
Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Ave.
Washington, D.C. 20530
More than 50 journalism and press organizations recently wrote you to voice grave concerns about the Justice Department’s subpoena of telephone records belonging to Associated Press reporters and editors. We write today as a coalition of civil rights, public interest, transparency and media reform groups to express similar concerns.
Your actions have threatened press freedom — and endangered the health of our democracy. As groups working to strengthen democratic institutions and foster more open government, we are deeply concerned that your agency’s actions will hinder efforts to make government more transparent and accountable to the public.
Following years of aggressive leak investigations, the Justice Department’s overreaching subpoena of AP phone records sets a dangerous precedent. Furthermore, it appears to violate the Department’s own rules and guidelines. The impact of the Justice Department’s actions is already being felt. AP CEO Gary Pruitt reports that sources are now less willing to talk to reporters. And journalists from newsrooms large and small have noted the chilling effects on their coverage of the government.
The latest news suggests that the subpoenas were even broader than initially reported. In addition, details are emerging about a case in which the Justice Department also seized phone records from reporters at Fox News and labeled one of its journalists a “co-conspirator” for simply doing his job.
These troubling developments raise real questions about the scope of the Department’s surveillance of journalists. At a recent congressional hearing, Mr. Holder, you couldn’t recall how many times the Justice Department has subpoenaed journalists’ records. We need to know the full extent of your Department’s crackdown against journalists.
In the digital age, reporting is no longer confined to America’s traditional newsrooms. As such, threats to press freedom threaten anyone who seeks to share information about official actions using a cellphone, social media service or website. The Obama administration promised a new era of openness and transparency. Your actions, which expand secrecy and intimidate those trying to shed more light on our government, run counter to that promise.
We demand a full accounting of the Justice Department’s targeting of journalists and whistleblowers. We need this information so that we can advocate for appropriate action to protect everyone’s constitutional rights and push for stronger legal standards to protect all types of information gathering and sharing.
The Justice Department must explain its overreach in this matter. Furthermore, we call on the Department to stop violating its existing rules and cease targeting of individuals and organizations reporting on government activity.
Alliance for Women in Media
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
American Civil Liberties Union
American Library Association
The Banyan Project
Brave New Films
Center for Democracy and Technology
The Committee to Protect Journalists
Communications Workers of America
Defending Dissent Foundation
Digital Media Law Project
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting
Freedom of the Press Foundation
Georgia First Amendment Foundation
Investigative News Network
Katy’s Exposure Blog
Knowledge Ecology International
LAMP: Learning About Multimedia Project
The Media Consortium
Media Mobilizing Project
Mine Safety and Health News
National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture
National Association of Black Journalists
National Coalition Against Censorship
National Federation of Community Broadcasters
National Freedom of Information Coalition
National Hispanic Media Coalition
National Priorities Project
Native Public Media
The Newspaper Guild-CWA
Park Center for Independent Media
Participatory Politics Foundation
PEN American Center
Personal Democracy Media
Project On Government Oversight
Prometheus Radio Project
Public Record Media
Society of Professional Journalists
Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University
Utah Foundation for Open Government
Washington Civil Rights Council
Women In Media & News
Women, Action & the Media
Women’s Media Center
WRFN, Radio Free Nashville
Writers Guild of America, East