SABEW, Reporters’ Groups Decry Seizure of NYT Reporter’s Records

Posted By Crystal Beasley

Following reports that the Justice Department seized telephone and electronic communication records of a New York Times reporter, leaders of the National Press Club and several professional journalism organizations plan to invite Attorney General Jeff Sessions to meet about the dangers such investigative techniques pose to a free press and the democracy that depends upon it.

Members of the working press are not the only Americans who should be alarmed that federal investigators gained access to years of communications between a reporter and her sources, the press groups warned Friday.

“The real victims are members of the American public who benefit from the information made possible by the work of reporters — work that has been jeopardized by overly intrusive efforts to stop leaks by the Obama and, now, the Trump administration,” said National Press Club President Andrea Edney.

On Friday, the Times disclosed that federal investigators had swept up correspondence of reporter Ali Watkins, some of which dated back to her time working for Politico and Buzz Feed. The reporter was informed of the seizure only after the fact and was given no opportunity to defend her professional privacy, the newspaper reported. Watkins has not been accused of wrongdoing; the documents were seized as part of an investigation of the alleged unauthorized disclosure of information by a Capitol Hill staffer.

“A free press — one that is free to develop confidential relationships with whistleblowers who sometimes are the only ones willing to call out abuses of power — is an essential part of our democracy’s system of checks and balances,” said Barbara Cochran, president of the National Press Club’s Journalism Institute. “If the government continues to use technology to violate that confidentiality, it will have a chilling effect on the kind of reporting that has long benefited citizens.”

Five years ago, after President Barack Obama’s Justice Department made a similar covert sweep of phone and electronic communication records of the Associated Press and a subpoena for the records of a Fox News reporter, the Press Club joined a coalition of professional journalism organizations that met with Attorney General Eric Holder.  As a result, Holder issued new guidelines that require investigators to follow more stringent procedures before journalists’ records.

“Justice Department guidelines say law enforcement can only obtain reporters’ communications records under the most extreme circumstances, said John M. Donnelly, president of Military Reporters & Editors and chairman of the NPC Press Freedom Committee. “When journalists’ contacts with sources are collected by the government, it risks freezing the flow of information that Americans need to govern themselves.”

The president of the Society for Advancing Business Writing and Editing echoed those concerns.

“Journalists must be allowed to perform honest work unfettered by intrusions from law enforcement or anyone else who might be either hostile toward or concerned about our unending search for the truth,” said Mark Hamrick, president of SABEW and Washington Bureau Chief for Bankrate.com.

The National Press Club, SABEW and Military Reporters and Editors urge resumption of a dialogue between media organizations and the Justice Department. “The Press Club, where reporters and their sources have met for more than a century, is a perfect venue for the attorney general to air his concerns and hear ours,” said Kathy Kiely, the NPC Journalism Institute’s Press Freedom fellow.

Founded in 1908, the National Press Club has more than 3,100 members worldwide representing nearly every major news organization. Through its nonprofit Journalism Institute, it provides professional training for reporters and communicators and advocates for press freedom worldwide.

SABEW is an independent, non-profit organization that helps it members improve reporting of economic events. MRE is a U.S. association of reporters and editors who cover national security.

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