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Report: White House Scrutiny of Leaks Threatens Press Freedom

  • VOA News

A reporter takes notes as White House Press Secretary Jay Carney (C) answers his question about Syria during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, Aug. 27, 2013.

A reporter takes notes as White House Press Secretary Jay Carney (C) answers his question about Syria during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, Aug. 27, 2013.

The Obama administration's aggressive prosecution of leaks and its efforts to control information are becoming a threat to press freedom and democracy, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

A report released Thursday by the New York-based media watchdog group said U.S. President Barack Obama's actions have been a sharp contradiction to his promise of transparency and open government.

Former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie, the report's author, said "administration officials and employees are increasingly afraid to talk to the press" due to heightened scrutiny of leaks.

He said six government employees and two contractors have been targeted for prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act for accusations they leaked classified information to the press. Downie said this was a chilling use of a law used "only in three previous cases in the past nine decades."

White House officials interviewed for the report strongly objected to being portrayed as against press freedom. "The idea that people are shutting up and not leaking to reporters is belied by the facts," Obama press secretary Jay Carney told Downie.

National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said there is still investigative reporting about national security issues with information from "non-sanctioned sources with lots of unclassified information and some sensitive information.''

Downie interviewed numerous reporters and editors, including a top editor at The Associated Press, following revelations this year the government secretly seized records for telephone lines and switchboards used by more than 100 AP journalists. Downie also interviewed journalists whose sources have been prosecuted on felony charges.

In a statement accompanying the report, the Committee to Protect Journalists said it was "disturbed by the pattern of actions" that "have chilled the flow of information on issues of great public interest, including matters of national security."

The report about 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 U.S. 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."

Downie added the Obama administration's "war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive" he had seen since the Nixon administration and The Washington Post's investigation of Watergate.

He said the policies are also harmful to U.S. efforts to promote press and Internet freedom around the world.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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