Barack Obama’s press freedom legacy

April 3, 2015

President Obama took office in 2009 promising to make his administration the most transparent in American history. New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger, for one, says he’s failed.

“This is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered,” said Sanger in a 2013 CPJ report, “The Obama Administration and the Press.” The report’s author, former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie, Jr., declared, “The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration.” As journalists often note, the Obama administration has prosecuted more leakers under the 1917 Espionage Act than all former presidents combined.

With less than two years remaining in his administration, there are still actions the president can take to strengthen transparency at home and increase US influence abroad, particularly advocacy on behalf of journalists facing persecution and violence as a result of their reporting.

According to the CPJ report, the Obama administration’s policies have undermined the role of the press in three fundamental ways.

First, the government’s war on leaks has not only intimidated whistleblowers, it has ensnared journalists. To designate providing classified information to the media as espionage alone sends an intimidating message, but journalists and news organizations have also been subpoenaed and surveilled in the course of these investigations.

Second, the Obama administration has undermined transparency by fighting against the release of essential information, such as the Justice Department’s “drone memo,” which provided legal justification for attacks carried out around the world, including the targeting of American citizens. The administration has failed to address the issue of over-classification of government documents; it has allowed the proposed reform of Freedom of the Information practices to languish; and it has stymied contact between reporters and officials.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Finally, revelations about the scope of the NSA surveillance program have had a global chilling effect, undermining the confidence of journalists and inhibiting their ability to communicate with their sources. The perception that the US government routinely monitors electronic communications has limited contact between journalists and officials, according to a joint ACLU-HRW report entitled With Liberty to Monitor All, published last summer. It is worth noting that US journalists enjoy some legal protections against NSA surveillance; journalists outside the United States do not.

The Obama administration has taken some positive steps in recent months. In January, the Justice Department decided not to call New York Times reporter James Risen to testify in the trial of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who was subsequently convicted of leaking classified information. Risen, who had been subpoenaed in the case, vowed not to reveal his sources. Later in January, the Justice Department adopted new guidelines limiting the circumstances in which journalists can be subpoenaed and compelled to testify about their reporting.

These actions, while limited, are important and pave the way for additional steps.

For example, Obama should accelerate the process with which FOIA requests are answered and approved in the spirit of the January 2009 FOIA memorandum, which called on all government agencies to “adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure.” He should support stalled legislation to codify this standard in law. According to a recent AP report, the Obama administration last year set a record for denying and censoring requests for government information. This is why the president must urgently implement recommendations from the Public Interest Declassification Board’s 2012 and 2014 reports to reduce the over-classification of information.

Second, the president should repeal the “Insider Threat” program that requires federal employees to help prevent unauthorized disclosures of information by monitoring the behavior of their colleagues. The prohibition on unauthorized contact with the media has bled into other agencies dealing with sensitive but non-classified information, like the FDA and the EPA. Obama can also unilaterally loosen restrictions for all government agencies to allow officials to speak more freely with reporters.

Finally, the administration must disclose information regarding current federal policy on the warrantless surveillance of journalists’ communications. Obama should issue a presidential directive limiting the ability of national intelligence and law enforcement agencies to surveil the communications of journalists in the US and around the world. There must be formal procedures to ensure that all requests to surveil journalists require high-level approval. This was a key demand of CPJ’s Right to Report Campaign, which gathered more than 10,000 signatures. The issue was also raised by a CPJ delegation that met with senior official at the White House last December.

Taking these actions will also strengthen US foreign policy goals. The president’s latest National Security Strategy document, which outlines the administration’s vision of its leadership role around the world and its strategy for protecting US interests, notes, “our ability to promote our values abroad is directly tied to our willingness to abide by them at home. In recent years, questions about America’s post-9/11 security policies have often been exploited by our adversaries, while testing our commitment to civil liberties and the rule of law at home. For the sake of our security and our leadership in the world, it is essential we hold ourselves to the highest possible standard, even as we do what is necessary to secure our people.”

On World Press Freedom Day, May 3, US officials, including perhaps President Obama, will make public statements in support of persecuted journalists around the world. Such statements don’t have much visibility in the United States, but they have enormous resonance in places around the world where journalists are at risk. For example last year, US official highlighted the case of imprisoned Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Van Hai. He was subsequently released from prison and allowed to travel to the US, where he currently resides.

Likewise, the failure to uphold high standards opens the door for repressive leaders to justify their actions by citing the US example. Last year, Egyptian officials claimed that the country’s crackdown on the local press and the imprisonment of three Al-Jazeera English journalists was “not so different from the Obama administration’s crackdown on leakers in national security cases,” according to The New York Times.

Journalists facing persecution and repression depend on the support of the US government, now more than ever. That is the most compelling reason why President Obama must use his remaining time in office to increase transparency at home and reinforce the country’s influence abroad. It’s not too late for the president to make this his press freedom legacy.

Joel Simon is the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.