Press freedom a myth in world of secrecy bills and broken promises


BARACK Obama is the worst US president since Richard Nixon. That is one interpretation of a report published a few days ago by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which says press freedoms have not been as strained as they are now since the time of that infamous president in the 1970s.

Nixon was famously brought down by a Washington Post investigation that found the government had tried to break into the offices of the Democratic National Convention and then to cover the whole thing up.

Reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (there was work done by a number of other publications, but the reports by these two men were the most explosive and influential) uncovered information that showed that knowledge of the break-in ran up the levels at the Justice Department, the CIA, the FBI and the White House.

It says something about the extent to which the Obama administration has caused concern in the press that the CPJ, which normally focuses on other countries, decided to commission a report on the state of press freedom in the US.

The report — written by Leonard Downie Jr, a former executive editor of The Washington Post — notes that although the president criticised George W Bush and ran on a promise of a more transparent government back in 2008, “he has fallen short of his promise”.

“In the Obama administration’s Washington, government officials are increasingly afraid to talk to the press. The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration, when I was one of the editors involved in The Washington Post’s investigation of Watergate,” Downie wrote.

He interviewed editors and reporters. A senior Associated Press editor was interviewed after revelations that the government had secretly seized records for telephone and switchboard lines used by more than 100 of that organisation’s journalists.

A new Insider Threat programme implemented in all agencies means those thought to be discussing classified information with outsiders are increasingly likely to be subjected to investigation, and even surveillance, by colleagues.

To circumnavigate the press, the White House set up its own newscast, which relies heavily on social media and the web, to put out favourable reportage and images.

According to the report, this administration is the first to produce and publish videos of meetings that Obama attended with major figures that were never on his public schedule.

The 9/11 attacks are considered a watershed moment in heightened surveillance, as is the passing of the Patriot Act.

Just a few weeks ago, we celebrated what seemed to be our own watershed moment, but in the direction of increased transparency and freedom — President Jacob Zuma referred the contentious Protection of State Information Bill back to Parliament, as he had concerns with the constitutionality of some parts of the bill.

However, we seem to have hit another snag with that bill. Zuma highlighted two sections of the bill he found problematic, and then left it to state legal adviser Enver Daniels to answer to irate opposition politicians who felt the brief given by the president was too vague to be useful.

African National Congress MPs have responded accordingly to Daniels by signing off on limited changes to the bill that don’t review the entirety of the document.

So as far as we’re concerned, the secrecy bill hasn’t gone anywhere. Talk about a “broken” promise.