DENVER — Governments that try to force citizens to decide between a free press and national security create a "false choice" that weakens democracy, and journalists must fight increasing government overreach that has had a chilling effect on efforts to hold leaders accountable, the president and CEO of The Associated Press said Saturday.
Gary Pruitt told the 69th General Assembly of the Inter American Press Association that the U.S. Justice Department's secret seizure of records of thousands of telephone calls to and from AP reporters in 2012 is one of the most blatant violations of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution the 167-year-old news cooperative has ever encountered.
The Justice Department action involving the AP resonated far beyond the U.S., including Latin America, where journalists for decades have fought to exercise press freedoms under authoritarian regimes, Pruitt said.
"The actions by the Department of Justice could not have been more tailor-made to comfort authoritarian regimes who want to suppress the news media. 'The United States does it too,' they can say," Pruitt said.
A free and independent press "differentiates democracy from dictatorship; separates a free society from tyranny," he said.
"Governments who try to set up a situation where citizens think they must choose between a free press and security are making a mistake that will ultimately weaken them, not strengthen them. It's not a real choice. It is a false choice."
Pruitt said he was encouraged by proposed Justice Department guidelines, introduced after the records seizure, that would give news media advance notice of subpoenas so the press can challenge those actions in court; protect not just phone records but reporters' email, text messages and other forms of electronic communication; and guarantee that journalists won't be prosecuted for doing their jobs.
"But you can bet that we will be watching closely to make sure they are implemented and enforced," Pruitt said.
In 2012, the Justice Department secretly obtained records of work, cell and home numbers of AP journalists, as well as AP bureau numbers in New York, Washington, D.C., Hartford, Conn., and the AP number in the U.S. House of Representatives press gallery. It did so after an Associated Press story revealed the foiling of a plot in Yemen to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner at a time the Barack Obama administration was insisting publicly that it had no information about terrorist organizations plotting attacks on the United States in that period.
The Justice Department was trying to identify who leaked information for the AP story — but it didn't tell the AP about its phone records seizure until a year after the story ran.
The seizure was "hardly a surgical strike on a few carefully chosen targets. It was overbroad, sloppy and a fishing expedition into a wide spectrum of AP news journalism and journalists — most of whom had nothing to do with the issues in question here," Pruitt said.
It also differed from the National Security Agency's broad monitoring of global communications because it was specifically directed at locating the source of AP's reporting.
Just as alarming, the seizure has intimidated both official and nonofficial sources from speaking to the AP and numerous other news organizations, even about stories not related to national security, Pruitt said.
"Now, the government may love this. I think they do. But beware a government that loves secrecy too much," he said.
And the challenge isn't going away, Pruitt said.
"The attack on journalism — here in the United States and throughout the rest of the world — is not going to cease any time soon. In fact, I think it will become even more difficult to counter as technology gives governments very powerful tools to monitor the actions and communications of citizens and journalists," he said.
The Miami-based Inter American Press Association has about 1,400 member news organizations and promotes press freedoms throughout the Americas.