Politics — 13 August 2014

aclu logo Human Rights Watch logoJournalists, civil liberties organizations and human rights groups are up in arms about the erosion of the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution due to government surveillance.

On July 28, 2014, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union issued a joint report stating that “surveillance is undermining media freedom and the right to counsel, and ultimately obstructing the American people’s ability to hold their government to account.”

In short, if you care at all about your fundamental rights, you’ll read on, pay attention to what’s going on.

The 120 page report, called “With Liberty to Monitor All: How Large-Scale U.S. Surveillance is Harming Journalism, Law and American Democracy” can be found here.

The heart of the matter is that privacy is paramount to freedom of the press and attorney-client privilege. If the government can listen to private conversations, then it can control opposition to the government.

“Journalists and their sources, as well as lawyers and their clients, are changing their behavior in ways that undermine basic rights and corrode democratic processes,” the report said.

“What makes government better is our work exposing information. It’s not just that it’s harder for me to do my job, though it is,” said Dana Priest, a reporter for The Washington Post, in the report. “It makes the country less safe. Institutions work less well, and increases the risk of corruption…. Secrecy works against all of us.”

“It’s slowing down journalists and chasing away their sources. It’s making it harder for them to do their jobs,” said Alex Sinha, the author of the report.

The report is based on interviews with 92 people in the United States, including 46 journalists from The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Washington Post, ABC News and The New York Times, and others.

The report states, “The increase in US government surveillance has come at the same time as an increase in criminal investigations and prosecutions of leaks, as well as the establishment of new government programs to prevent leaks of information or otherwise restrict government officials’ contact with the media. These steps have raised further concerns over public access to information, particularly as many journalists, advocates, and even some members of Congress and the Executive Branch believe the government over-classifies information, prohibiting access to much information that is not actually sensitive.”

James RosenAn example of how surveillance is directly impacting journalists was played out very loudly in May of 2013, when Fox News journalist, James Rosen, became a target of an investigation by the Department of Justice.

Rosen reported about how intelligence officials expected North Korea to respond to a UN Security Council resolution about North Korea’s launching of missiles.  Rosen’s source was a government contractor who allegedly gave Rosen classified information.

The FBI affidavit said that Rosen’s aggressive search for classified information had “aided, abetted, or conspired” with his source to violate the law.  Read that sentence again.  Rosen, a highly respected senior journalist for Fox News was doing his job – reporting on what is happening in the world.  His first amendment rights give him the freedom to do so. But, the government wanted to strip his right to free speech and his right to a free press by labeling him a criminal in order to give itself access to his private conversations.

The DOJ also seized phone records of Rosen’s parents, along with five other Fox News reporters, according to The New York Times.  His parents? Really.

The threat of surveillance programs are effective in keeping officials quiet. Anonymity is a fundamental part of the freedom of the press, and if one can not trust that the “government is not listening,” silence is the result.

In short, the more the government knows, the less the public does.  The more the government scares its citizens into silence, the less the public will learn.  These are dangerous things.  The framers of the Constitution knew what they were fighting against when they defined our country. They witnessed what governments’ powers can do to suppress freedoms.  So, when any part of the Bill of Rights is chiseled away, it’s time to be scared.

The remedy to the erosion of civil liberties? Register to vote and educate yourself on which candidates support protecting your freedoms.

 

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