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In our opinion: The Obama administration's all-out assault on press freedom

Published: Saturday, March 22 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Charles Dharapak, the chief White House photographer for The Associated Press, speaks to editors and publishers at the Newspaper Association of America’s mediaXchange 2014 convention March 18, 2014. Dharapak talked about his experience of ongoing coverage limitations placed on news organizations by the Obama White House.

Brennan Linsley, Associated Press

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Press freedom is enshrined in the Constitution for good reason. Fifty years ago, in the landmark Supreme Court case New York Times v. Sullivan, justices summed it up well, saying this freedom was vital because informed public debate is necessary for democracy to thrive.

And yet the Obama administration has been waging an all-out assault, largely under-reported, on this freedom. It’s time for the nation’s media to make this an issue.

Three recent reports have brought this into focus:

The latest edition of the World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders. It ranked the United States 46th out of 180 countries, a drop of 14 places from the year before. Finland topped the list as the nation with the freest press.

An Associated Press analysis of federal data denying access to government information. It found the “The Obama administration more often than ever censored government files or outright denied access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, cited more legal exceptions it said justified withholding materials and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy,” according to an AP report.

A new study by the watchdog group Cause of Action. This group discovered that in 2009 the newly elected Obama administration quietly rewrote the federal Freedom of Information Act to allow the White House to review any documents being sought by the press or public having to do with “White House equities.” This new language, not found anywhere in the law passed by Congress, allows for sweeping new secrecy powers by the executive branch.

All of this adds fuel to criticisms that President Obama rewrites legislation without congressional approval, in violatation of the Constitution.

The administration’s record makes a mockery of Obama’s promise to make his administration the “most transparent” ever.

Consider more examples of what has come to light in recent years:

Last May, the Associated Press learned the Department of Justice had obtained two months worth of telephone records from reporters and editors in several AP offices. The administration obtained warrants for the searches without the knowledge of the news agency, whose top executive called it a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into newsgathering.

The New York Times reporter James Risen faces a possible jail sentence unless he reveals his sources and testifies in the trial of a former CIA official accused of leaking information to him. This is just one in a string of prosecutions aimed at reporters that led Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. to label the administration’s efforts to control information “the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration.”

In another high-profile case, the administration has gone after Fox News reporter James Rosen in an effort to find out how he obtained classified information on North Korea. This has included obtaining his parents’ phone records and tracking his movements as he visited the State Department.

Obama held fewer press conferences in his first term than any president since Ronald Reagan. He held 64 fewer than did George W. Bush, according to a Politico analysis. As the Wall Street Journal noted early in that first term, the president often pre-selects those who are allowed to ask questions at these press conferences, adding to the widespread perception that reporters who are critical of him are denied access.

The president has banned independent photos and video at official events, which prompted a letter of protest from news organizations.

Today marks the end of Sunshine Week, a time for press advocates to promote government openness. The need for this is clear. In a government that derives its powers from the people, the people have a right to access information as to what its leaders are doing.

It’s time for Obama’s shameful record in this regard to be widely known.

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