CPJ urges US to mitigate threats to journalism, newsgathering

September 22, 2014

The Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20500

Via facsimile: +1 202-456-2461

Dear President Obama:

The Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide, is writing to express its concern about the effects of intelligence and law enforcement activities undertaken by agencies, over which your administration has oversight, on the free flow of news and other information in the public interest.

Although your administration has taken steps to address some of the concerns we first identified to you in an October 2013 letter, the measures do not go far enough to mitigate threats to journalism and the journalistic process. In fact, information revealed over the past year regarding the breadth of surveillance by the National Security Agency calls into question the seriousness of your administration’s commitment to reform.

We are deeply troubled by reports that the NSA and allied agencies monitored the electronic communications of journalists and news organizations. For example, the German magazine Der Spiegel reported in September 2013 that the NSA hacked into a protected internal communications system of Al-Jazeera. In February 2014, Washington Post journalist Barton Gellman said a National Security Letter was used to secretly obtain his phone records. Several journalists have also said that the surveillance of journalists has a chilling effect on them and their sources.

We are also concerned by ongoing aggressive leak investigations that target journalists with subpoenas and search warrants. The U.S. Department of Justice continues to pursue information from award-winning journalist James Risen that would make him reveal a confidential source. The Justice Department only recently amended its rules to prohibit federal law enforcement agents from circumventing the Privacy Protection Act of 1980, following public outrage over a search warrant targeting James Rosen, a Fox News journalist who had engaged in ordinary newsgathering activities.

Journalists continue to describe being detained, interrogated, and searched at the U.S. border despite the existence of updated Homeland Security regulations. Journalists’ electronic devices have also been searched, which could put the confidentiality of their sources at risk. One journalist–the award-winning documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, whose films showcase American policy in the post-9/11 era–has said she was detained for questioning at U.S. border crossings more than 40 times between 2006 and 2012. New York Times journalists C.J. Chivers and Mac William Bishop said they were detained before leaving on a reporting trip for Syria in 2013, and Bishop was detained on his way back into the U.S.

In light of these additional revelations over the past year, we ask that you do more to ameliorate the effect of pervasive surveillance on the free flow of news. We recognize the government’s vital interest in protecting U.S. national security, but there must be reasonable limits–and meaningful, independent checks–on the powers of any one person, agency, or branch of government. As New Yorker staff writer and Columbia Graduate School of Journalism Dean Steve Coll recently told the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, “Every national security reporter I know would say that the atmosphere in which professional reporters seek insight into policy failures [and] bad military decisions is just much tougher and much chillier.”

Although Congress and the courts have a role in ensuring that U.S. policies are necessary, proportional, and lawful, there are steps your administration can immediately take to mitigate the harm caused to journalism in recent years. In order to more fully protect the newsgathering process, we request that your administration:

  • Issue a presidential policy directive prohibiting the hacking and surveillance of journalists and media organizations.
  • Limit aggressive prosecutions that ensnare journalists and intimidate whistleblowers.
  • Prevent the harassment of journalists at the U.S. border.

We last wrote to you in October 2013, prior to the release of CPJ’s special report on press freedom conditions in the United States, and requested a meeting to discuss our concerns and recommendations, which included a focus on ending the chilling effect generated by overbroad leak prosecutions and remedying the overall lack of transparency in your administration. We remain concerned about these issues and are disappointed that we have not received a substantive response to the issues we raised.

We understand and appreciate that your administration has taken some measures toward reforming U.S. surveillance and law enforcement practices that touch upon these matters, such as taking steps to better comply with both the letter and spirit of the Privacy Protection Act and to increase oversight prior to the issuance of secret subpoenas and other legal processes that seek journalists’ materials. However, we ask that more be done to ensure that journalists are able to do their jobs without fear of reprisal or censorship. To that end, we once again respectfully request a meeting with you to discuss our concerns and our recommendations for improving the press freedom environment in the United States.

We thank you for your attention and look forward to your response.


Sandra Mims Rowe

Joel Simon
Executive Director

CC List:

Josh Earnest, White House Press Secretary

Eric Holder, Attorney General of the United States

Jeh Johson, Secretary of Homeland Security

Brian Fallon, Director of the Office of Public Affairs, the United States Department of Justice

Tanya J. Bradsher, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, the United States Department of Homeland Security