Tag: freedom of the press

A Brief Civil Liberties Quiz

See if you can spot the civil-liberties victory:

  1. The Supreme Court says the government can put your DNA in a national database, even if you were wrongly arrested.
  2. The State of Mississippi imposes mandatory collection of the DNA of babies born to teenage moms, neither of which is suspected of a crime.
  3. The Department of Justice is tracking and threatening to prosecute reporters, for the crime of reporting.
  4. The National Security Agency is collecting everyone’s phone records, even if they suspect you of nothing.
  5. The U.S. Senate kills a bill that could lead to a registry of law-abiding gun owners.

Answer: #5. 

Those crazy senators are looking less crazy all the time. 

Three Questions about Government Spying on the Press

It’s heartening to see widespread outrage—both online and from members of Congress—about the news that Justice Department vacuumed up phone records spanning two months from 20 phone lines belonging to the Associated Press or its employees. This may not be a return to the bad old days of J. Edgar Hoover, who kept files of derogatory information about hostile journalists, but surveillance of the press—even in the course of otherwise legitimate investigations—always threatens to impede the vital check on government the Fourth Estate provides. A subpoena covering so many of a major news organization’s phone lines, including shared switchboard and fax numbers used by scores of reporters, for such an extended period, seems especially troubling in the context of this administration’s unprecedented war on whistleblowers. It’s effectively a warning that nobody who speaks to the press without White House approval—whether they’re leaking classified secrets or just saying things the bosses wouldn’t like—can count on anonymity.  I’ll have plenty more to say about this soon, but a few key questions reporters and legislators ought to be asking:

  • DOJ regulations are supposed to require a careful balancing of investigative needs against First Amendment values before reporter records are sought, with advance notice to the press whenever possible. The AP is fairly certain its records were seized as part of a leak investigation aimed at uncovering the source of  a story about a foiled terrorist plot—a story the AP itself sat on until they were convinced publication posed no national security risk. The administration itself was on the verge of announcing the same facts. Given that anonymous sources discussing classified matters with press are a routine and indispensable part of journalism, what made this investigation so urgent that it was necessary to use methods experts agree were far more broad and intrusive than the norm?
  • Read hyper-literally, those same DOJ regulations refer only to “subpoenas” directed at journalists themselves or seeking “telephone toll records.” And the DOJ’s own operational guidelines make quite clear that they do read the rules hyper-literally: They apparently are not held to apply to the myriad tools other than grand jury subpoenas at the government’s disposal, such as National Security Letters or administrative subpoenas. Does DOJ employ a similarly literal reading of “telephone toll records,” such that they’re not required to observe these rules when they obtain other electronic records, such as e-mail transactional data? The DOJ, recall, says they often don’t need warrants to read e-mail or Facebook chats, let alone review transactional metadata concerning such communications. So it seems odd that they would pull out all the stops when it comes to phone records, yet ignore the channels by which modern reporters probably conduct the bulk of their correspondence. Even if it would have been infeasible to access logs of AP’s e-mail transactional data without tipping them off (my understanding is they maintain their own e-mail servers), nearly every journalist has potentially revealing Facebook friend lists, personal Gmail accounts, Twitter direct message headers, and so on—some of which would be more targeted than records from phone lines shared by dozens of journalists. Was other data that DOJ believes to be outside the scope of their reporting obligations—either because it wasn’t obtained by “subpoena” or because it wasn’t “telephone toll records”—obtained in this case? More broadly, how much press data is obtained without notification because it falls outside these categories?
  • Thanks to a 2010 Inspector General report, we know a bit about the FBI’s use of “community of interest” data requests that sweep up call log data not just on a single target, but all the phones their target is in regular contact with—and maybe even the numbers those phones are calling too. After using this technique for years—sometimes literally by accident—FBI sought an Office of Legal Counsel opinion about whether the press notification rules applied when such requests were likely to indirectly pull in press records. In January 2009, OLC concluded they did—but since they ended up not getting the records in that instance, and the agent making the request apparently hadn’t understood quite what he was requesting, the FBI decided it didn’t need to tell anyone at the time. What, then, is the Justice Department’s current policy when it comes to information about press communications obtained indirectly through “community of interest” requests? Is any attempt made to ascertain when such requests have acquired reporters’ phone records, whether or not that was either intended or foreseen when the request was made? Since records in the FBI database are retained indefinitely for potential future data mining, even records the FBI doesn’t currently know belong to reporters could easily end up revealing patterns of press activity as a result of future analysis. Does DOJ think it must inform reporters when this happens, or is it only at the acquisition stage that the notice obligation applies?  Has any broad effort been made to determine how many reporter records are in FBI databases, especially as a result of requests made before 2009? 

Of course, whatever the answers to these questions, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is right to point out that the broader problem is that communications metadata isn’t entitled to much protection under either current Fourth Amendment jurisprudence or federal statute. This means the government can typically access metadata with little or no judicial oversight—and if you’re not a reporter there are no special rules requiring the government to ever notify you that your records have been swept up in some investigation. As technological change makes such metadata increasingly revealing—because nearly everything you do online leaves some digital trace, from which ever more detailed inferences can be drawn using sophisticated analytic tools—the problem is not just for press freedom: it’s a privacy problem for all of us.

French President Demands and Gets Firing of Opposition Editor

According to the New York Times, French Socialist president François Hollande demanded and received the dismissal of the editor of Le Figaro, the country’s leading conservative newspaper. If that sounds impossibly high-handed, consider the background, as reported in the Times:

The publisher, Serge Dassault, is a senator from [ousted President Nicolas] Sarkozy’s political party [and thus opposed to Hollande]. But Mr. Dassault also heads a major military contractor, and there was widespread speculation that [Figaro editor Étienne] Mougeotte’s ouster was meant to put the Dassault group in good stead with the new president.

For an American reader, it would be natural to turn the page with a murmur of thanks that such things don’t go on in our country. Don’t be so sure:

[Since-convicted Illinois Gov. Rod] Blagojevich, Harris and others are also alleged [in the federal indictment] to have withheld state assistance to the Tribune Company in connection with the sale of Wrigley Field. The statement says this was done to induce the firing of Chicago Tribune editorial board members who were critical of Blagojevich.

And in 1987, at the secret behest of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC) inserted a legislative rider aimed at preventing Rupert Murdoch from simultaneously owning broadcast and newspaper properties in Boston and New York. The idea was to force him to sell the Boston Herald, the most persistent editorial voice criticizing Kennedy in his home state. Kennedy’s and Hollings’s actions drew criticism in places like the Harvard Crimson and from syndicated columnist R. Emmett Tyrrell, but no national furor developed.

One moral is that we cannot expect our First Amendment to do the whole job of protecting freedom of the press. Yes, it repels some kinds of incursions against press liberty, but it does not by its nature ward off the danger of entanglement between publishers and closely regulated industries, stadium operators, and others dependent on state sufferance. That’s one reason there’s such a difference in practice between a relatively free economy, where most lines of business do not require cultivating the good will of the state, and an economy deeply penetrated by government direction, in which nearly everyone is subject to (often implicit) pressure from the authorities. France has been unable to avoid the perils of the latter sort of economy. Can we?

Ayn Rand on the Front Page of Ecuador’s Major Newspaper

El Universo, the newspaper with the largest circulation and the paper that publishes my weekly column, ran a mostly blank front page today that features only this quote from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged:

When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion–when you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing–when you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors–when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you–when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice–you may know that your society is doomed.

This quote is from Francisco D’Anconia’s speech on “The Meaning of Money” which you can read here. (I used it in my column last month.) How did Rand’s quote get there? It’s a response to the latest and most prominent attack on freedom of the press in Ecuador and Latin America.

In less than four months the Ecuadorian courts, known for being slow, resolved the specious lawsuit President Rafael Correa filed against op-ed writer and editor Emilio Palacio, the directors of El Universo and the newspaper itself for libeling the country’s president. According to Correa, Palacio slandered him in this op-ed (in Spanish), and the newspaper and its directors “contributed” to committing the supposed crime. Incidentally, this court has had five different judges overseeing this case since February; the last one came in on Monday and issued his judgment yesterday, minutes before his authority expired.

The court’s decision sentences the directors of El Universo and Emilio Palacio to three years in jail and orders them to pay a total of $30 million to the President. The judge also ordered that the newspaper company pay an additional $10 million to President Correa.

This decision sets a dangerous precedent of making third parties responsible for what an individual says. It is a clear act of intimidation of all independent media outlets and of the citizens of Ecuador. Even though this is not the first blow to freedom of expression during this government, it certainly is the most radical given the context. On May 7th, a referendum gave the President unprecedented power to essentially pack the courts. Soon, the entire judiciary will be on the long list of state institutions captured or co-opted by the executive (including the constitutional court, the electoral authority, and the national assembly, among others).

Once the judiciary is completely captured and after this historic decision, we can expect more self-censorship or more people sued/jailed for expressing their opinions, or a combination of both. It is a harsh blow against liberty in our country, but a logical outcome of Correa’s populist push to centralize ever more economic and other power in his own hands.

R.I.P. Bill Monroe, a First Amendment Champion

Bill Monroe, who was moderator for NBC’s Meet the Press for about 10 years, has died at 90. The Washington Post does a fine job with his long career, from his pro-civil-rights journalism in Lousiana in the 1950s to his years with NBC and Meet the Press.  

I want to draw attention to his longtime advocacy of extending the First Amendment to broadcasting. Actually, I’m sure he thought that the First Amendment did cover all forms of the news media — but he knew that Congress and the courts didn’t see it that way, so he wanted an explicit amendment to make that clear. Because his articles on this topic were published in the pre-Internet Dark Ages (yes, children, there are great ideas not online), I can’t link to any of them. 

He spoke at the Cato Institute in 1984 on the topic:

The First Amendment sets up a clear-cut independence of press from government as the journalistic principle most vital to the American people.  But the existing regulatory approach to broadcasting offers exactly the opposite formula:  government guidance and government rules to protect the American people from independent journalism. The First Amendment idea and the regulation idea are mortal enemies.

And in 2007 he briefly reprised the argument in the letters column of the Washington Post, concluding:

Broadcasters are also open to government pressure through the Federal Communications Commission, whose members are appointed by the president. Newspapers are specifically protected against government interference by the granite wall known as the First Amendment.

When the present form of broadcast regulation was set up early in the previous century, nobody understood what powerful instruments of news and information would evolve from the primitive radio stations of that day. Now that we do understand it, we can repair that historic mistake. We can extend the clear, stirring language of the First Amendment to equal protection for freedom of the electronic media. The problem of allocating broadcast licenses does not have to cost the American people the benefit of free broadcasting.

R.I.P.

The Kirchners Go After the Newspapers in Argentina

Argentina’s power couple (President Cristina Fernández and her husband and former president Néstor Kirchner) took their fight against the country’s major newspapers one step further today when the government released a report that might ultimately give it control of the company that distributes paper to the newspapers.

The government report targets Papel Prensa, a private company that belongs to a group controlled by Clarín and La Nación, Argentina’s major daily newspapers, and that distributes paper to 170 newspapers all over the country regardless of their editorial line and ideology.

The government claims that the previous owners of Papel Prensa sold the company back in 1976 under pressure from the military junta that then ruled Argentina. The report says that the government will sue the board members of both newspapers for “crimes against humanity” and “illegal purchase” of Papel Prensa. It also brings up charges of financial irregularities and unfair competition in the distribution of paper.

Both Clarín and La Nación vehemently deny the charges, pointing out that in the 27 years under democratic governments, Papel Prensa has never been impugned in the way it was acquired back in 1976. They claim this is a plan from the Kirchners to take over the company, and thus extend government control over the distribution of the newspapers main input: paper.

This is not the first time that the government has targeted Papel Prensa. Two weeks ago, the Commerce Secretary, Guillermo Moreno, stormed the company’s board meeting wearing boxing gloves and a helmet, shouting “you won’t vote here.” Last Thursday, Moreno, along with 10 others, broke into the offices of Papel Prensa shouting “I’m the owner” while trying to take over offices and desks.

Even though they no longer control Congress, the Kirchners have found a way to get what they want largely because of the divided and weak opposition. However, they might be pushing the envelope in picking such a contentious fight in a country where freedom of the press is still valued.

The Ecuadorian Government’s Campaign against the Free Press

The World Cup is over but not the Ecuadorian government’s propaganda campaign vilifying the free press.

For those Ecuadorians who don’t have Direct TV, but only have cable TV or the local network channels, the only place to have watched the much-awaited matches was on one of the state-owned TV stations and with constant state propaganda. (You can watch the videos depicting the private press as a snake or as shooting bullets coming out of the TV here, here, here and here.)

When I say constant, I might be understating the frequency: according to Infomedia — a media monitoring company— during the weekend of June 18-20 these ads were broadcasted 414 times for a total of 7,988 seconds or 133 minutes.

To make matters worse, the ads continue to be aired at the same time the not-so-independent National Assembly is debating a new communications law that would create a Communications Council — controlled by the executive branch — with the power to impose severe sanctions on radio and TV stations and newspapers.

For starters, the proposed law contains this contradictory statement in its preamble:

Every person … has the right to … search, receive, exchange and distribute information that is truthful, appropriate, contextualized, plural and without previous censorship…

Of course, it will be up to the council to decide what is truthful (and appropriate, contextualized and plural, whatever that means).

Additionally, the Council would have the power to impose sanctions on TV and radio stations and the written press, including fees of 1-10% of the average sales of the media company during the previous three months. The long list of actions that could provoke a sanction includes the following:

  • not complying with the obligation to broadcast at least 40% of nationally produced material during the daily programming schedule;
  • broadcasting or publishing ads that “provoke violence, discrimination, racism, addiction to a drug, religious or political intolerance and all publicity that threatens human rights”;
  • broadcasting commercials that do not “promote consumption that is social and environmentally sustainable”

Again, the government-controlled Council will judge whether media stations are in compliance.

Moreover, the proposed law stipulates that several positions (editors, general directors, news directors, reporters) at TV and radio stations and newspapers be held by individuals with college degrees in communications and journalism. 

The current communications regime also gives similar powers to a body charged with regulating radio and TV stations, but at least on paper, it is not controlled by the executive branch and does not have the power to impose sanctions on the written press. Even so, the current communications regulation was drafted by a military dictatorship in the 1970s and partly amended since the return to democracy in 1979.  President Correa relied on the content control provisions of the law — mostly ignored since 1979 — to shut down privately owned Teleamazonas TV for three days last year.

The Ecuadorian penal and civil codes already define sanctions for individuals who commit libel. These codes, applicable to all citizens, have been useful for Correa’s government: the op-ed page editor of El Universo, Emilio Palacio, was sued by one of Correa’s allies (Camilo Samán, the president of one of the state-owned banks) and convicted to three years in prison for libel (more on that here). Palacio appealed and then Samán mysteriously lifted all charges against the accused a couple of days before Hillary Clinton met with Correa in Quito.

During the last week of the World Cup, the editors-in-chief of the country’s main newspapers published public letters to the secretary of communications of the presidency (read them here, here, and here), Fernando Alvarado, in which they protested being accused in the government propaganda of being “thieves,” promoting “violence” and lying. The editors also demanded that Alvarado specify which media outlet is guilty of these charges and on what precise occasion they committed these punishable crimes. Guadalupe Mantilla, the editor-in-chief of El Comercio stated in her letter that this regrettable abuse of public funds for propaganda has been characterized “by an aggressiveness never before seen in Ecuador during a democratic regime.”

The government reacted to these letters with another offensive ad on TV that was aired during the Spain vs. Germany match. Last week, the Ecuadorian Association of Newspaper Editors issued a statement, endorsed by the country’s 12 most important newspapers and magazines, that read: “This attack from the executive branch happens at a time when the National Assembly is about to approve a new Communications Law … that flouts all international principles and agreements pertaining to rights and freedoms. Given these facts and given the lack of independence of the judiciary, we affirm that freedom of expression continues to be violated in Ecuador…”