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Watching the Watchdogs

SAN ANTONIO, TX--Journalists typically think of themselves as the watchdogs of government.

But in the U.S. at least, those roles appear to be reversing. 

Recent revelations that U.S. Department of Justice officials surreptitiously monitored phone records of journalists at the Associated Press and Fox News in order to smoke out whistleblowers is triggering a chill deeply felt in the U.S. press corps.

“The criminalization of journalism is extremely dangerous,” warned Michael Oreskes, senior managing editor of The Associated Press at the Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference Saturday.

Cloak-and-dagger government snooping through reporters’ phone records in search of confidential source identities represents, he said, a breach of one of America’s founding principles: “There should be no unchecked exercise of executive power. That’s why we got rid of the king.”

Modern whistleblower hunting, a technological sophisticated art of following electronic trails left by unwitting journalists, poses a serious threat to reporters, their sources and the wider public interest, he said.

“The right to be a reporter, the right to do journalism is a right we have to defend,” he said. “This idea that the government gets to decide what good journalism is just doesn’t wash.”

Growing journalistic anxieties over Orwellian leak-plugging techniques inspired some of the country’s leading editorial voices to issue strong-worded admonitions during the weekend conference.

U.S president Barack Obama’s “war on leaks” is “as aggressive as anything I’ve seen since the Nixon administration,” said Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of the Washington Post and now a professor at the Arizona Statue University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.

He received little argument.

“What’s interesting to me is how aggressive the government has gone on this,” said James Bamford, a leading U.S. journalist and author specializing in national security issues. “I’ve seen an enormous change.”

Lucy Dalglish, a journalist and lawyer who served as executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press for a dozen years, offered few assurances to panicky reporters, many posing questions about how to protect sources in the age of surveilled electronic communications. 

“Technology has gotten to the point where (governments) have a huge advantage over us,” she said.

“They don’t have to (get journalists to reveal sources) anymore…They’re sitting back saying, ‘Ha, ha, ha, we don’t have to waste three years on a subpoena anymore. They think they don’t need us anymore. They think they’ve outsmarted us.”

If governments have indeed taken an unnerving advantage in their cat-and-mouse intelligence battle with journalists, reporters and editors need to more vigorously respond, said Quinn Norton, a journalist and blogger who writes about hacker culture.

“We need to up our game,” she warned. “We need to go the people who build tools for us…and demand better tools.”

At its heart, that leveling of the intelligence battlefield needs to make protection of vulnerable sources a central concern, she said. 

“Even if sources don’t know enough about how to keep themselves safe, it’s our job to help them…There’s both a big cognitive task ahead of us and a moral task ahead of us.”

Robert Cribb is a foreign affairs and investigative reporter at the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @thecribby



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