current affairs

Journalism in America after the phone seizure

For journalism in the United States, this has been a week no one will be forgetting anytime soon.

On May 13, it was announced that the US Justice Department had seized telephone records belonging to the Associated Press news agency. The records spanned two months, April and May 2012, and tracked the calls to the telephone numbers of the AP’s switchboard and its bureaus in New York, Washington, and the state of Connecticut, located in the country’s northeast. The agency’s bureau in the House of Representatives in the US Capitol was also targeted, in addition to the work and mobile numbers of some AP reporters and editors.

Criticism of the move was immediate, in a country where freedom of the press is enshrined in the basic freedoms and values that define this nation of 300 million people. Members of Congress from both parties wanted answers from the Attorney General Eric Holder in the reasons surrounding the case. Holder however had recused himself from the case, because of a conflict of interest surrounding testimony he gave to Congress on the subject of a foiled terrorism plot in Yemen, the subject of the AP’s story.

The criticism did not stop beyond the corridors of power. Journalists and news organisations across the US wrote to Holder in protest, and the questions of whether good journalism could thrive in the United States arose with the threat to the freedoms of speech and the press.

By May 15, as the political tension began to mount surrounding the seizure of the records, a report in The New York Times emerged of a proposal of a shield law—a law that would protect reporters and journalists from revealing their sources and denying requests for phone records related to a story. The report indicated that the Senate liaison to President Barack Obama, Ed Pagano, telephoned the office of Charles Schumer, the Democratic Senator for New York State, to put the proposal, known as the Free Flow of Information Act, forward in the Senate.

A White House official confirmed to Kettle that Pagano made the telephone call. Telephone requests to Schumer’s office were not returned. In a press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan May 16, Obama said the law was a balance to protect the interests of national security and the continuation of freedom of the press. The Times’ report notes the Act was previously introduced in 2009.

Calls to the Justice Department and the Judiciary Committee in the House, which Holder testified in regarding the subject, were not returned.

It is hoped that journalists in the United States can continue their work without fear of repercussions, including the events of this past week. Calls and requests made to the AP, the Times, The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post newspapers, the Reuters news agency, the television networks ABC, NBC and CBS, the cable network CNN and National Public Radio were not returned. A call to the Society of Professional Journalists, a membership organisation in the state of Indiana which represents journalists in the US, was not returned.

It is unclear of the timetable of when, or indeed if, this law will pass. But one thing is for sure—the journalists who look to inform the readers, viewers and listeners they serve, will, as the Society of Professional Journalists organisation’s code of ethics says, seek truth and report it.

And it will be reported, in spite of any circumstances that would come in the way of that.

What do you think of the events surrounding the Associated Press? Do you think a media shield law will prevent something like this from happening? Have your say in the comments section below, on Facebook or on Twitter.