The US State Department announced the launch of its third annual "Free the Press" campaign today, which will purportedly highlight "journalists or media outlets that are censored, attacked, threatened, or otherwise oppressed because of their reporting." A noble mission for sure. But maybe they should kick off the campaign by criticizing their own Justice Department, which on the very same day, has asked the Supreme Court to help them force Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter James Risen into jail.
Politico's Josh Gerstein reports that the Justice Department filed a legal brief today urging the Supreme Court to reject Risen's petition to hear his reporter's privilege case, in which the Fourth Circuit ruled earlier this year that James Risen (and all journalists) can be forced to testify against their sources without any regard to the confidentiality required by their profession. This flies in the face of common law precedent all over the country, as well as the clear district court reasoning in Risen's case in 2012. (The government's Supreme Court brief can be read here.)
Associated Press reporter Matthew Lee commendably grilled the State Department spokesman about the contradiction of its press freedom campaign and the James Risen case at today's briefing on the State Department initiative, repeatedly asking if the government considers press freedom issues in the United States the same way it does aboard. The full transcript is below.
As Gerstein noted, "The Justice Department brief is unflinchingly hostile to the idea of the Supreme Court creating or finding protections for journalists," and if the Justice Department succeeds "it could place President Barack Obama in the awkward position of presiding over the jailing of a journalist in an administration the president has vowed to make the most transparent in history."
The government does mention it is working with Congress to craft a reporter's shield bill, which should give you some indication that the proposed bill is at best a watered-down, toothless version of what many courts have offered journalists for decades, and that would be no help to James Risen—the exact type of reporter that we should be attempting to protect the most. It's important to remember that in Risen's case, the government has previously analogized reporter's privilege to a criminal receiving drugs from someone and refusing to testify about it.
We'll have more on both the shield law and the Risen case soon, but it's clear that the US government still refuses to walk the walk when providing journalists the protections it says it believes in.
Oh, and while we're on the subject, maybe the State Department can use its "Free the Press" campaign to put pressure on one of its staunchest allies, the United Kingdom, which is using terrorism laws to suppress acts of journalism—something the State Department has condemned many times in the past.
Here's the full interaction between the AP's Matthew Lee and the State Department spokesperson Jennifer Psaki on James Risen and US press freedom at today's State Department briefing:
JENNIFER PSAKI: One more announcement for all of you: With World Press Freedom Day around the world on May 3rd, the department will launch its third annual Free the Press campaign later this afternoon in New York at the U.S. U.N. mission. Beginning on Monday and all of next week, we will highlight emblematic cases of imperiled reporters and media outlets that have been targeted, oppressed, imprisoned or otherwise harassed because of their professional work. The first two cases will be announced by Assistant Secretary — Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski later at the — at U.S. U.N. And we invite you of course to follow Tom at Twitter, who has — on Twitter who, as you all know, was just confirmed several weeks, @Malinowski and to keep up with human rights issues on DRL's website.
With that —
Q: Sure. Just on that, reporters who are, what, harassed? I'm sorry —
MS. PSAKI: Targeted, oppressed, imprisoned or otherwise harassed.
Q: Otherwise harassed. Does that include those who may have been targeted, harassed, imprisoned and otherwise whatever by the United States government?
MS. PSAKI: I'm —
MS. PSAKI: I think you're familiar with our Free the Press campaign, Matt, but —
Q: Fair enough. So it does not include those who might have been harassed by —
MS. PSAKI: We highlight, as we often do, where we see issues with media freedom around the world.
Q: Right, I understand. But you would say that you don't — the U.S. does not believe that it has a problem with press freedom, or if it does, that it's not nearly as severe as the problems in other countries.
MS. PSAKI: We do not. I think we can look at many of the problems —
On media press freedom?
Oh. Go ahead. And then we'll go to you, (Paul ?).
Did you have another question on media press freedom, or —
Q: If I could just go back to the overall, in general, the administration does not regard attempting to prosecute American journalists as an infringement of press freedom?
MS. PSAKI: I'm not sure which case you're — what you're referring to.
Q: Well, there's several cases that are out there right now. The one that comes — springs to mind is the James Risen case, where the Justice Department is attempting to prosecute. I just want to be clear. I'm not trying to —
MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, I —
Q: I just want to know if you regard that as an infringement on press freedom or not. And I suspect that you do not, but I want to make sure that that's the case.
MS. PSAKI: As you know, and I'll, of course, refer to the Department of Justice, but the leaking of classified information is in a separate category. What we're talking about here, as you all know and unfortunately we have talk about on a regular basis here, is the targeting of journalists, the arrests, the imprisonment for simply exercising their ability to tell the story.
Q: Right. I understand that. And we're all, I'm sure, myself and all my colleagues, we're very appreciative of that.
But the reporters in question here have not leaked the information; they simply published it. So is it correct, then, that you don't believe — you don't regard that as an infringement of press freedom?
MS. PSAKI: We don't. I don't have anything more to say on that case.
MS. PSAKI: Do we have a new topic?