News Release

Obama and Holder’s ‘Assault on Freedom of the Press’

Nearly 50,000 people have signed a petition in recent days urging President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to end legal moves against New York Times reporter James Risen.

Charging that the administration has launched “an assault on freedom of the press,” the petition tells Obama and Holder: “We urge you in the strongest terms to halt all legal action against Mr. Risen and to safeguard the freedom of journalists to maintain the confidentiality of their sources.”

Federal prosecutors are threatening Risen with jail unless he reveals a confidential source. Risen has said he will not capitulate.

A recent brief that the Obama administration filed with the nation’s top court — seeking to compel Risen to name his source — “is unflinchingly hostile to the idea of the Supreme Court creating or finding protections for journalists,” Politico reported.

“Risen was subpoenaed by the prosecution to testify at a planned federal trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer who was charged with illegally disclosing classified information including information that appeared in Risen’s book, State of War,” Politico noted.

Risen’s reporting in the book told of an apparent CIA attempt to set back Iran’s nuclear program by supplying the Iranian government with flawed blueprints for nuclear-bomb design, a tactic that might have actually aided Iranian nuclear development. Risen wrote that the agency’s action, which occurred in 2000, “may have been one of the most reckless operations in the modern history of the CIA.”

Titled “We Support James Risen Because We Support a Free Press,” the petition says: “Without confidentiality, journalism would be reduced to official stories — a situation antithetical to the First Amendment.”

The petition was initiated by five organizations: Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR); the Freedom of the Press Foundation; The Nation; The Progressive / Center for Media and Democracy; and RootsAction.org. (Comments from petition signers and a real-time total are posted online.)

LISA GRAVES, editor at prwatch.org
Graves, president and publisher of The Progressive, formerly served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice. She said today: “The U.S. Constitution commands that ‘Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of the press,’ and by extension, no president should be permitted to abridge that fundamental freedom by prosecuting a reporter for reporting. I share the great Justice William O. Douglas’ disdain for the judicial invention that there should be some sort of ‘qualified immunity’ for reporters waiving that freedom if the government claims that the need to force reporters to divulge their sources is ‘compelling.’ The government has too often sought to intimidate and punish journalists and other truth-tellers in our democracy — while it has also run to court to try to hide governmental lies to the American people about violations of our rights or to cloak actions done in our name but without our consent.”

Graves added: “History demonstrates that the CIA’s interventions in Iran have sown additional seeds of enmity between that nation and our own. The revelations of James Risen about the CIA’s recent activities in that country are the price of honoring the freedom of the press, a freedom the U.S. rightly condemns Iran for suppressing. Rather than prosecute James Risen for his reporting, this administration would better serve our democracy by using federal prosecutors to hold accountable those leaders of the CIA whose decisions have damaged America’s international reputation for upholding human rights, such as those who were involved in the torture of prisoners and those who subverted checks and balances through destroying evidence of their crimes. No one has been prosecuted for those crimes, but such prosecution would vindicate the rule of law. Prosecuting Risen for reporting and protecting his sources, in contrast, will only erode the rights our Constitution guarantees to us as a free people.”

TREVOR TIMM, trevor at pressfreedomfoundation.org, @trevortimm
Timm is executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. He said today: “The attempt by the Justice Department to force James Risen to reveal his sources is one of the most significant press freedom cases in decades. At stake is every reporter’s First Amendment right to gather news and hold our government accountable. We hope the Justice Department quickly reverses course or the Supreme Court finds once and for all that national security journalists have just as many rights as every other reporter in our judicial system.”

JEFF COHEN, jeffco at hvc.rr.com
Cohen, co-founder of RootsAction.org, directs the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, where he is an associate professor of journalism. He said today: “In my journalism classes, I often invoke this definition: ‘Journalism is publishing what the powers-that-be don’t want published; everything else is public relations.’ James Risen has irritated the Bush and Obama administrations by his refusal to settle for PR on ‘national security’ issues.”

Cohen added: “The Risen case is just the latest symbol of the decline of press freedom in our country, a concept we pretty-much invented with the First Amendment to our Constitution. Our country has fallen to 46th on the World’s Press Freedom Index, behind such countries as El Salvador, South Africa and Romania. And the harassment and threats to jail journalists have intensified under a president who once taught constitutional law.”