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Report: Obama brings chilling effect on journalism

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government’s aggressive prosecution of leaks and efforts to control information are having a chilling effect on journalists and government whistle-blowers, according to a report released Thursday on U.S. press freedoms under the Obama administration.

The Committee to Protect Journalists conducted its first examination of U.S. press freedoms amid the Obama administration’s unprecedented number of prosecutions of government sources and seizures of journalists’ records. Usually the group focuses on advocating for press freedoms abroad.

Leonard Downie Jr., a former executive editor of The Washington Post, wrote the 30-page analysis entitled “The Obama Administration and the Press.”

“In the Obama administration’s Washington, government officials are increasingly afraid to talk to the press,” wrote Downie, now a journalism professor at Arizona State University. “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.”

To bypass journalists, the White House developed its own network of websites, social media and even created an online newscast to dispense favorable information and images. In some cases, the White House produces videos of the president’s meetings with major figures that were never listed on his public schedule. Instead, they were kept secret — a departure from past administrations, the report noted.

Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief who is now director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, told Downie the combined efforts of the Obama administration are “squeezing the flow of information.”

“Open dialogue with the public without filters is good, but if used for propaganda and to avoid contact with journalists, it’s a slippery slope,” Sesno said.

In the report, Jay Carney, Obama’s press secretary, said such complaints about transparency are part of the “natural tension” between the White House and the press.

“The idea that people are shutting up and not leaking to reporters is belied by the facts,” Carney told Downie.

Downie found the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were a “watershed moment,” leading to increased secrecy, surveillance and control of information.

“Every administration learns from the previous administration,” said CBS Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer. “They become more secretive and put tighter clamps on information.”

To date, six government employees and two contractors have been targeted for prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act for accusations that they leaked classified information to the press. There were just three such prosecutions under all previous U.S. presidents.

Kathleen Carroll, AP’s executive editor, said the report highlights the growing threats to independent journalism in a country that has upheld press freedom as a measure of democratic society for two centuries.

“We find we must fight for those freedoms every day as the fog of secrecy descends on every level of government activity,” she said in a statement.

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