President Obama made some commendable speeches at the United Nations last week, but his self-serving remarks to a panel on open government won’t win any plaudits from supporters of an independent news media. They were an astonishing example of saying one thing while doing just the opposite.
Mr. Obama has presided over an administration with an appalling record on First Amendment issues, particularly when it comes to government snooping and national security. Despite paying lip service to the idea of open government, he seems as determined as ever to keep the news media and the public in the dark on matters that deserve scrutiny and debate, including the latest bombing campaign in the Middle East.
He’s drawn the ire of virtually every free-press organization in this country because of his actions. Yet, he dared tell the Open Government Partnership: “Here in the United States, we’ve been trying to lead by example.” That deserves a full-on Pants on Fire rating!
The partnership, launched three years ago under U.N. auspices, is designed to promote transparency in government, among other things. For Mr. Obama to claim some sort of exemplary record that deserves emulation is, frankly, shameless. The president’s action and policies regarding First Amendment issues offer only examples of what should not be done in a genuine democracy.
▪ Subpoenaing journalists to reveal sources. Reporter James Risen of The New York Times has been fighting for seven years to protect a confidential source he used to write a book about the CIA. Last month, free-press organization reporters sent the White House a petition signed by 100,000 people, including 20 Pulitzer Prize winners, urging the administration to rethink this chilling policy on news freedom. So far, no reply.
▪ Expanded monitoring of electronic communications of journalists and news organizations. A letter sent to the president this month by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) cited two egregious reports of government prying into news-media phone records and internal communications, as well as reports of surveillance of journalists.
▪ Guantánamo. As this newspaper has reported in detail, basic information is routinely denied, including court filings and the number of detainees on a hunger strike. Photo and video coverage is severely restricted.
▪ Freedom of Information requests. An analysis by the Associated Press reported last year that, “more and more than it ever has [the Obama administration] cited legal exceptions to censor or withhold material.”
There are many more everyday examples of the administration’s propensity to deny information. Access to meetings between the president and foreign leaders is increasingly rare, for example. Photo coverage of bombers involved in the air campaign over Syria is denied.
All of this is far more than is necessary to protect U.S. national security. The administration does not seem to understand, or care, that democracy requires a robust free press and independent reporting on government activity, especially in the realm of national security.
If the president wants to lead by example, he can begin by reviewing some of these harmful policies. The CPJ letter suggested limiting aggressive prosecutions that ensnare journalists and intimidate whistleblowers, as well as ordering a stop to the hacking and surveillance of journalists and news organizations. That would be a good start.