The lack of a federal law on the confidentiality of sources, difficulties accessing state-held information and mass electronic surveillance programmes – there are still many obstacles to information in the land of the First Amendment despite Barack Obama’s election as president in 2008.
Barack Obama’s accession to the presidency raised hopes after eight years of erosion of civil liberties in the name “national security” under George W. Bush. But these hopes were quickly dashed as regards freedom of information, which continues to be violated regardless of the principles enshrined in the constitution’s First Amendment.
There has been a recent increase in prosecutions being brought under the 1917 Espionage Act against whistleblowers responsible for leaks. Private Bradley Manning, a young US army analyst, is being tried for passing classified military information about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to WikiLeaks. Although he is facing a possible life sentence, a lack of transparency surrounds his trial, which began in June 2013.
Other high-profile cases have also pointed to an all-out drive to hunt down sources. They have included the May 2013 revelation that the Department of Justice seized Associated Press phone records to identify the news agency’s source for story, and that Washington-based reporter James Rosen of Fox News was subjected to various kinds of spying to identify the source of a leak of classified documents.
There is still no “shield law” protecting journalists’ sources at the federal level although legislation of this kind already exists in 30 of the Union’s states. The absence of such a guarantee – due to “national security” concerns – has a direct impact the ability of journalists to do their job. The confidentiality of their contacts with their sources is an essential condition for freedom of information, especially when sensitive information is involved.
“National security” is also the grounds given for the continuing frequent problems in accessing state-held information. This can be seen in the way that the Freedom of Information Act is implemented. Officials often use it to withhold information although this should be the exception. One example was filmmaker Josh Fox’s arrest in Congress in February 2012 when he tried to film a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment.
The existence of mass electronic surveillance programmes is another source of concern. According to a June 2013 leak, nine leading US Internet sector companies have given US intelligence agencies access to the data of their users under a programme called Prism that was launched in 2007 with congressional approval. Similarly, it was revealed that the phone company Verizon passes details about the phone calls of millions of US and foreign citizens every day to the National Security Agency. Such programmes violate privacy and endanger freedom of expression and information.
Finally, frequent obstruction of freedom of information was reported during the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in late 2011. More than 80 journalists, bloggers and ordinary social network activists were the victims of police violence during the protests. Several journalists were also arrested and, in some cases, charged with unlawful assembly, disorderly conduct or lack of press credentials.
Updated in June 2013