US surveillance programmes restricting press freedom – Report

A rally against mass surveillance last year. (Photo by Rena Schild)
A rally against mass surveillance last year. (Photo by Rena Schild)

By Hamish Boland-Rudder

U.S. government surveillance programmes are scaring away sources, making journalists feel like criminals and spies, and impacting the public’s access to quality news reporting, according to a new report released today.

The 130-page With Liberty to Monitor All report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union was based on 92 interviews with journalists, lawyers, and former and current U.S. government officials, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity. Within the context of recent revelations of widespread surveillance by US authorities, including by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the report seeks to document how government spying has affected not just the work of journalists and lawyers, but also the subsequent impact on the public’s access to information.

While far from scientific, the report’s recurring theme is one of growing difficulty for journalists trying to cultivate and protect sources, and develop stories that involve sensitive or controversial government issues. Of the 46 journalists interviewed, many spoke of the time-consuming and arduous measures they have had to go to in recent times to ensure their work and their sources were not compromised – interestingly, much of it involved a delicate balance between using special technology, such as encryption, and abandoning technology altogether.

“Journalists told us that officials are substantially less willing to be in contact with the press, even with regard to unclassified matters or personal opinions, than they were even a few years ago,” the report said. “In turn, journalists increasingly feel the need to adopt elaborate steps to protect sources and information, and eliminate any digital trail of their investigations—from using high-end encryption, to resorting to burner phones [discarded after a short period of time], to abandoning all online communication and trying exclusively to meet sources in person.”

The journalists also said the additional security measures were not only a burden that made reporting take longer, but also sometimes threatened to scare sources away. “In many instances, for encryption to work, both the journalist and the source must have some facility with the same encryption tool. Some journalists expressed doubts about their own ability to master encryption and related technologies,” the report said.

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