President Obama's Awkward (And Hypocritical) Relationship With Press Freedom
NEW DELHI: United States President Barack Obama delivered his eighth and final speech at the White House Correspondent’s dinner. Media headlines today are dominated by the content of the President’s speech. Obama took several digs at Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Republican front runner Donald Trump was not spared, as Obama’s jokes hit Trump where it hurts -- his lack of experience. Obama, however, ended his speech on a serious note. He appealed to the media to remain independent and objective.
Obama said, “At home and abroad, journalists like all of you engage in the dogged pursuit of informing citizens, and holding leaders accountable, and making our government of the people possible. And it’s an enormous responsibility. And I realize it’s an enormous challenge at a time when the economics of the business sometimes incentivize speed over depth; and when controversy and conflict are what most immediately attract readers and viewers.”
“The good news is there are so many of you that are pushing against those trends. And as a citizen of this great democracy, I am grateful for that. For this is also a time around the world when some of the fundamental ideals of liberal democracies are under attack, and when notions of objectivity, and of a free press, and of facts, and of evidence are trying to be undermined. Or, in some cases, ignored entirely.”
“And in such a climate, it’s not enough just to give people a megaphone. And that’s why your power and your responsibility to dig and to question and to counter distortions and untruths is more important than ever. Taking a stand on behalf of what is true does not require you shedding your objectivity. In fact, it is the essence of good journalism. It affirms the idea that the only way we can build consensus, the only way that we can move forward as a country, the only way we can help the world mend itself is by agreeing on a baseline of facts when it comes to the challenges that confront us all.”
Powerful stuff, if Obama really meant it. Now here’s the catch. Just as Obama was making his impassioned speech regarding media freedom at the White House Correspondents Dinner, press freedom advocates have been alleging that the President is doing all he can to stifle media freedom in the US.
On Thursday, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a non-profit organisation promoting press freedoms worldwide, released its first comprehensive report on the Obama administration’s surveillance practices and their effects on the domestic press. During the time that Obama has been in office, the number of individuals prosecuted by the Department of Justice (DOJ) for leaked information under the 1917 Espionage Act has seen a staggering increase.
“The Obama administration’s war on leaks … is in stark conflict with the president’s goal of increasing the federal government’s transparency,” Leonard Downie, Jr., the vice president at large of The Washington Post, said Thursday at the report’s Washington release.
Since 2009, a total of six government officials, plus two private contractors, have been subject to criminal prosecutions under the Espionage Act. Prior to that, only three officials had been charged in over nine decades.
“The extremely aggressive approach by the current administration has led to an unusually high number of leak prosecutions,” Steven Aftergood, the director of the Government Secrecy Programme at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a security-focused non-profit organisation here, told IPS.
“This has created a polarised atmosphere where journalists are simply frightened by the prospect of future prosecution,” he said.
Recently, outrage followed the Department of Justice secretly seizing Associated Press (AP) telephone records as part of a DOJ investigation into an AP story that had disclosed a covert U.S. intelligence operation in Yemen. The raid prompted the Senate Judiciary Committee to approve a new media shield law -- whereby journalists are protected from revealing confidential material -- but critics argue that the definition of journalists as per the law is dangerously narrow as it includes only those associated with big media houses.
“What is worrisome about the new shield law is that, for instance, it would restrict online bloggers and journalists who aren’t connected to a news media organisation from carrying out any journalistic act,” Jillian York, the director of the International Freedom of Expression programme at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an advocacy group, told IPS. “Of course, that depends on your definition of a journalistic act. Although it’s not a clear definition, it should be as broad as possible so as to safeguard the free flow of information.”
Much of the debate on press freedom in the US, in fact, is set around the narrowness of definitions. “One of the reasons behind this tense atmosphere is that the scope of national security as currently defined by the government is extremely broad,” FAS’s Aftergood says. “It includes areas that many people think ought to be subject to public debate.”
So, while the public and the media would like to see a freer environment for the flow of information, the government has so far adopted a broad view of national security that has enabled it to withhold large amounts of information from the public, writes Ramy Srour in IPS.
This, critics says, has come at a high price. “What the recent leaks tell us is not just that the government is trying to restrict freedom of expression,” Larry Siems, the director of the Freedom to Write Programme at the PEN American Center, an advocacy group advancing free expression, told IPS. “They’re telling us that our government has been engaging in activities that run counter to our laws and to international humanitarian law.”
Take the example of Edward Snowden -- charged under the Espionage Act for leaking classified government information on phone and Internet surveillance by the U.S. and British governments. In fact, the Obama administration has also implemented a series of surveillance practices that have made it increasingly troublesome for government officials to approach the press. As Srour points out in IPS, the Insider Threat Programme, for instance, aims to eliminate leaks by government officials, ordering federal employees to report any suspicious behaviour by their colleagues. Forced to spy on each other, government officials are now reportedly becoming increasingly less willing to respond to calls from the media, for fear of future repercussions, according to The Washington Post’s Downey, Jr.
In conclusion, whilst Obama made a relevant point regarding democracy being based on a free and independent press that maintains objectivity by digging deep and reporting the facts -- it is his administration, that has done more than any other, to ensure that that function remains nothing but a pipe dream.
(With input from INTER PRESS SERVICE)