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Report Examines Obama and the Press

This morning, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a comprehensive report examining freedom of the press under the Obama administration. The report author is former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr.

In a press release, CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said the committee felt compelled to examine the issue in response to the intense secrecy that has come from strong punishments for whistleblowers.

Journalists working in the United States have told us that their work has become more difficult as aggressive leak investigations have chilled certain kinds of reporting.

The report argues that the administration’s policies have a detrimental affect not only on the media but also on the U.S. image abroad as a role model for independent, uncensored media. From a blog post summarizing the report:

The sneaky surveillance and prosecution of journalists in the search for leakers have a global cost. By disproving that U.S. journalists cannot be forced to go to court or to jail because they published something that embarrasses government officials, these actions provide easy alibis for enemies of a free press in authoritarian states and weaken the U.S. commitment to defend press freedom and embattled journalists everywhere.

Downie included Project On Government Oversight (POGO) Executive Director Danielle Brian’s input concerning a meeting she attended with Obama and other transparency advocates in March, 2011.  He references a blog post she wrote summarizing the event.

When Brian brought up “the current aggressive prosecution of national security whistle-blowers” and the “need to create safe channels for disclosure of wrongdoing in national security agencies,” she wrote, “The president shifted in his seat and learned forward. He said he wanted to engage on this topic because that may be where we have some differences. He said he doesn’t want to protect the people who leak to the media war plans that could impact the troops. He differentiated these leaks from those whistle-blowers exposing a contractor getting paid for work they are not performing.”

The distinction is decidedly unclear. An infographic POGO produced displayed the extremely variable repercussions whistleblowers have received, ranging from “free pass” to “world of hurt.”

Later, Downie discusses how recent revelations about intelligence agencies’ domestic surveillance increased the tension between the Obama administration and the press. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, intended to increase transparency by allowing journalists and others to make specific requests for information, are all too frequently denied.

Government transparency advocate Danielle Brian of POGO told me that, while “non-intelligence parts” of the Pentagon were responsive to information requests, many other parts of the Obama administration—especially the State Department, Agency for International Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency—were “off the charts bad on FOIA.”

Read more on the CPJ website. 

By: Avery Kleinman
Beth Daley Impact Fellow, POGO

Avery Kleinman Avery Kleinman is the Beth Daley Impact Fellow for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Whistleblower Protections

Related Content: Government Secrecy, Information Access, Democracy

Authors: Avery Kleinman

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