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Journalists in America suffer illegally at the hands of local and federal police agencies; they are tear-gassed, beaten, arrested, and harassed all too often. On July 30, 2020, reports leaked of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) compiling intelligence dossiers surfaced — a deplorable assault against the First Amendment.
Gabe Rottman, director of the Technology and Press Freedom Project, explained DHS’s error:
Federal law prohibits the creation of ‘dossiers’ on journalists precisely because doing so can morph into investigations of journalists for news coverage that embarrasses the government, but that the public has a right to know.
On August 1, DHS fired a scapegoat hoping to appease the public. Do not be deceived. In Trump’s America, the government thrives on breaking the law. Dismissing one snake from a viper’s nest is a token act, at best.
The incident of DHS offending intelligence reports took place during the recent federal occupation in Portland, Oregon. President Trump sent in DHS officers from several federal agencies without regard to the state’s rights. Journalists on-the-ground hailed from every major news organization and hundreds of freelance journalists and bloggers. DHS monitored all electronic communication — reporters and protesters alike.
According to numerous sources, the dossiers compiled named journalists who supposedly “leaked” the agency’s internal communication about the protests in Portland. One such document described DHS revealed the gross misunderstanding of the demonstrations. The dossiers are supposedly the result of tracking journalists who wrote about DHS shortcomings.
Trump’s incessant mantra against reporters — beginning years before he took office — serve to embolden DHS, and other agencies to cross the line by creating dossiers they know are illegal.
Government Dossier Compilation of Journalists Is Not New
However, the current news of DHS reports against journalists is nothing new. On March 6, 2019, the NBC News affiliate in San Diego, California, exposed the U.S. government creation of “a secret database of activists, journalists, and social media influencers tied to the migrant caravan and in some cases, placed alerts on their passports.”
President George W. Bush created the DHS on Nov. 22, 2002, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The agency is “responsible for safeguarding the country against terrorist attacks and ensuring preparedness for natural disasters and other emergencies.” No matter how Trump rails against the media, DHS has no business investigating issues outside their domain. Journalists are not enemy combatants — not terrorists planning attacks against the government.
Government officials — local, state, and federal — are not immune to negative press coverage. At least half of the former presidents had embattled relationships with the media, especially when their actions were scrutinized. Other agencies guilty of investigating journalists.
The Reporter’s Committee for the Freedom of the Press (RCFP) updated readers about the case concerning a DHS Border Patrol Agent, Jeffery A. Rambo. In 2018, he was charged with obtaining the personal and travel records on a Washington reporter using a restricted INS computer. He attempted to blackmail her by exposing a relationship she had with a political figure, adding he was working with the FBI, in 2017.
Reporter’s Committee filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit to obtain records detailing Rambo’s dealings. The DHS’s California Border Patrol (CDP) did not respond for well over a year. Lack of courtesy indicates yet another blatant disregard for the press and the Constitution.
Free Press Must Always Be Free
The First Amendment of the United States of America guarantees freedom of the press. They are not only protected by the Constitution but by numerous laws.
Simply identifying oneself as a journalist can elicit both negative and positive responses. The reason for this, as the authors of “The Elements of Journalism,” explain, “much of the last century if you owned a printing press or a broadcasting license, journalism is whatever you said it was.” In their search for a definition, the writers determined there must be a reason people spread the news:
The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.
“To fulfill this task:
- Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
- Its first loyalty is to citizens.
- Its essence is a discipline of verification.
- Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
- It must serve as a monitor of power.
- It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
- It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
- It must present the news in a way that is comprehensive and proportional.
- Its practitioners have an obligation to exercise their personal conscience.
- Citizens have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news as well — even more so as they become producers and editors themselves.”
Today, degreed journalists are joined by citizen journalists, bloggers, social media influencers, and most anyone who has a smartphone can catch the news in the making. None of them should be discounted. In Portland, the DHS agents drove around town in unmarked vans snatching protesters. But it was not news until a citizen videotaped camouflaged men jump out and grab his friend off of the sidewalk.
Unfortunately, in Trump’s America, the usual method of dealing with annoying journalists is to use DHS agents to threaten them. The government monitoring all electronic communication during a protest denies journalists’ right to freedom of speech.
Journalists are legally protected against such bullying in America. That does not stop them from lawsuits demanding the names of their sources, denial of public records. Thankfully, “The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press was created in 1970 at a time when the nation’s news media faced a wave of government subpoenas asking reporters to name confidential sources.” Since its inception, they have been a strong voice in support of free speech.
Opinion News by Cathy Milne-Ware
The New York Times: Border Agent Who Questioned Reporter Is Investigated for Computer Misuse
Reporter’s Committee for the Freedom of the Press: Reporters Committee: DHS’ intelligence reports’ on journalists covering Portland protests are unacceptable
NBC 7: Source: Leaked Documents Show the U.S. Government Tracking Journalists and Immigration Advocates Through a Secret Database
The Washington Post: DHS compiled ‘intelligence reports’ on journalists who published leaked documents
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