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The New York Times building in New York City in November 2016. The United States Justice Department seized phone and email records from New York Times reporter Ali Watkins, according to reports. (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

CPJ: Data seizure from New York Times reporter sets dangerous precedent

June 8, 2018 11:20 AM ET

New York, June 8, 2018--The Committee to Protect Journalists today expressed concern about the seizure of phone and email records from New York Times reporter Ali Watkins by the United States Justice Department in the first known incident that federal prosecutors have gone after a journalist's data under President Donald Trump's administration.

Prosecutors obtained the records from telecommunications companies-- including Google and Verizon-- as part of a leak-related investigation, according to the New York Times.

"In order to perform their public accountability function, journalists must be able to protect their confidential sources. Efforts by government that undermine this ability therefore represent a fundamental threat to press freedom," said CPJ's North America Program Coordinator Alexandra Ellerbeck from Kansas City. "This is why we believe that the government's seizure of Ali Watkins's data sets a dangerous precedent. We fear it could be an opening salvo in an ongoing battle over reporters' ability to protect their sources."

The past decade has seen repeated attacks on journalists' ability to protect their sources in the United States. The Obama administration set a record for leak-related prosecutions, and came under fire in 2013 for subpoenaing the records of Associated Press reporters, according to CPJ research. Under the Trump administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions during a news conference last fall boasted about tripling the number of leak investigations and called for reviewing internal DOJ guidelines to potentially make it easier to obtain journalist records, according to media reports from the time.

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