News Release

Obama and Press Freedom: Washington Post Adds to Outcry

With the Obama administration already on the defensive about its threat to jail — or impose harsh fines on — New York Times reporter James Risen for refusing to reveal a confidential source, a Washington Post editorial urges the government to end all legal moves against him.

The Post editorial (“The Administration Should Not Press Reporter James Risen to Reveal a Source,” August 22) quotes a recent statement by President Obama about events in Ferguson, Missouri: “Here, in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.”

The newspaper editorializes: “Mr. Obama has consistently proclaimed his belief in press freedom and its importance in our democracy. But his record undermines his words. The administration has conducted the most far-reaching campaign against leaks in recent memory, with more prosecutions than all previous administrations combined. Perhaps Mr. Obama doesn’t see any conflict here, but we do.”

The Post’s editorial targets the Risen case: “Prosecutors want Mr. Risen’s testimony in their case against Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA official who is accused of leaking details of a failed operation against Iran’s nuclear program. Mr. Risen properly has refused to identify his source, at the risk of imprisonment. Such confidential sources are a pillar of how journalists obtain information. If Mr. Risen is forced to reveal the identity of a source, it will damage the ability of journalists to promise confidentiality to sources and to probe government behavior.”

The controversy over the Justice Department’s moves against Risen has escalated this month. (See recent stories by AP, McClatchy, AFP, Politico and U.S. News & World Report as well as the August 14 news conference by press freedom groups that aired on C-SPAN.) In support of Risen, more than 20 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists issued individual statements, and a petition with 100,000 signers was presented to the Justice Department urging a halt to all legal action against him.

The following policy analysts are available for interviews:

COURTNEY RADSCH, cradsch at cpj.org, @courtneyr
Radsch is advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists, where she is leading the Right to Report in the Digital Age campaign aimed at ending surveillance and harassment of journalists. She said today: “The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on the United States Department of Justice to withdraw a subpoena seeking to force journalist James Risen to give testimony that would reveal a confidential source and uphold the administration’s professed commitment to press freedom.”

GREGG LESLIE, gleslie at rcfp.org
Leslie is legal defense director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He has served as a member of the American Bar Association’s Fair Trial and Free Press Task Force.

NORMAN SOLOMON, thefirstamendment at usa.com
Solomon has coordinated the petition campaign “We Support James Risen Because We Support a Free Press,” which presented the petition with 100,000 signers to the Justice Department on August 14. He said today: “With press freedom at stake, the extreme contrast between the Obama administration’s fine words and corrosive actions has become too flagrant and damaging to ignore. The First Amendment and the informed consent of the governed cannot function when the government is using surveillance and legal threats to inculcate fear and foster intimidation. It’s no longer just a matter of a chilling effect. The administration has systematically moved to freeze a basic necessity for a free press — the confidentiality of sources.”

Addressed to President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, the petition states: “Your effort to compel New York Times reporter James Risen to reveal his sources is an assault on freedom of the press. Without confidentiality, journalism would be reduced to official stories — a situation antithetical to the First Amendment. 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.”

Solomon is co-founder of RootsAction.org and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy.