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AP president says DOJ is squashing freedom of the press


AP President Gary Pruitt at National Press Club. Photo from AP.

From Politico.com…

Associated Press president Gary Pruitt on Wednesday slammed the Department of Justice for acting as “judge, jury and executioner” in the seizure of the news organization’s phone records and he said some of the wire service’s longtime sources have clammed up in fear.

Pruitt said the department broke its own rules with the seizure, which he said was too broad, and by failing to give the AP notice of the subpoena. Pruitt questioned the DoJ’s actions concerning the subpoena — had the DoJ come to the news organization in advance, “we could have helped them narrow the scope of the subpoena” or a court could have decided, he said.

“There was never that opportunity,” Pruitt said during a speech at the National Press Club in D.C. “Instead the DoJ acted as judge, jury and executioner in private, in secret.”

The AP reported in May the Department of Justice had secretly obtained records that listed incoming and outgoing calls in April and May of 2012 and the duration of those calls for work and personal phone numbers of AP reporters and phone lines for AP offices in New York, Hartford, Conn., and Washington. The seizure also included the main number for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery.

The government seized records, which listed incoming and outgoing calls and the call’s length, for more than 20 separate lines assigned to the AP and its reporters during the time the AP was reporting on a foiled terror plot by al Qaeda in Yemen. After the DoJ informed the AP — the law requires the department to give notice within 90 days — Pruitt called the move a “massive and unprecedented intrusion.”

Since the disclosure of the DoJ’s subpoena, Pruitt on Wednesday said AP reporters have experienced a chilling effect on newsgathering. Sources are “nervous and anxious” about talking with reporters, he said, and it goes beyond just the AP. “What I learned from our journalists should alarm everyone in this room and should alarm everyone in this country,” he said.

AP President Gary Pruitt spoke at the Press Club about what is needed to ensure freedom of the press.

“First: We want the Department of Justice to recognize the right of the press to advance notice and a chance to be heard before its records are taken by the government. This would have given AP the chance to point out the many failings of the subpoena. We believe notice was required under existing regulations; if the DOJ sees it differently, then regulations must be strengthened to remove any doubt.

Second: We want judicial oversight. We need to ensure that proper checks and balances are maintained. In the AP phone records case, the Justice Department determined, on its own, that advance notice could be skipped, with no checks from any other branch of government. Denying constitutional rights by executive fiat is not how this government should work.

Third: We want the DOJ guidelines updated to bring them into the 21st century. The guidelines were created before the Internet era. They didn’t foresee emails or text. The guidelines need to ensure that the protections afforded journalists from the forced disclosure of information encompass all forms of communication.

Fourth: We want a federal shield law enacted with teeth in it that will protect reporters from such unilateral and secret government action.

Fifth: We want the Department to formally institutionalize what Attorney General Holder has said: that the Justice Department will not prosecute any reporter for doing his or her job. The Department should not criminalize — or threaten to criminalize — journalists for doing their jobs, such as by calling them co-conspirators under the Espionage Act, as they did Fox reporter James Rosen. This needs to be part of an established directive, not only limited to the current administration.”