By a vote of 227 to 183 on June 29, 2006, the House of Representatives passed a resolution introduced the day before in support of the international bank transaction surveillance program implemented by the Bush administration within the scope of its fight against terrorism. This resolution amounts to a condemnation of the media who revealed the existence of this program, starting with The New York Times, which was the target of vehement criticisms voiced by the executive branch and the Congressional majority. Today, some elected Republican members were calling for accredited journalists to be prohibited from gaining access to Congress. Others go as far as to demand that the journalists be tried for high treason.
Representative Michael Oxley (Republican of Ohio), who wrote the resolution, stated that the recent article in The New York Times “cut the legs out from under this program.” On his own initiative, his colleague, J. D. Hayworth (Republican of Arizona), launched a petition-signed by 70 people to date-insisting that The New York Times’ journalists responsible for these revelations be fired.
“We object to the excessive tone and unsubstantiated claims solicited by the proponents of this resolution whose violent language represents an attack on press freedom and the right of citizens to be informed. This resolution constitutes an attempt to control the media, who are being asked to refrain from writing about sensitive subjects. This recent initiative, combined with the threats against source confidentiality, are fueling fears of increasing restrictions being imposed upon the press. “We are very troubled by this gradual deterioration of freedom of the press and freedom of expression in the United States, and urge the American public and political class to react,” Reporters Without Borders said.
27.06.06 - Justice department and Republican congressman adopt worrying stances on confidentiality of sources and government secrets
Reporters Without Borders voiced alarm today at both a justice department letter to congress opposing any federal “shield law” guaranteeing journalists the right to protect their sources, and a call by a leading Republican congressman for the New York Times to be prosecuted for revealing the government’s financial information-mining programme.
“These positions aggravate the decline in press freedom in the United States,” Reporters Without Borders said. “As well as initiating federal judicial proceedings against journalists to make them reveal their sources, the government now seems to be putting pressure on congress and trying to prevent the press from covering sensitive national security issues in the name of government secrecy.”
The press freedom organisation added: “We appeal once again to the US congress to quickly approve the freedom of information bills that were introduced in the senate and house of representatives in February 2005, not only to end the untenable legal status quo but also to ensure that the press can continue to fully play the indispensable role it should have in any democracy.”
A nine-page letter urging congress to vote against any federal shield law was sent by the justice department on 20 June to Republican senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the chairman of the senate judiciary committee, who is one of the backers of a proposed Free Flow of Information Act introduced in the senate last May by Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana) and Christopher Dodd (Democrat, Connecticut).
The bill would grant journalists a “qualified” rather than an “absolute” privilege as regard the confidentiality of their sources. Judges would be able to force journalists to reveal their sources only if several conditions were met. The source would have to be the only one available, for example. It would also have to be demonstrated that the reporter had information that was vital for a case and that there was a significant public interest in its disclosure.
The justice department letter argues that the bill before the senate could provide protection to terrorists. Referring to the letter, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press said: “under their reading of the bill, reporters for Al-Manar TV, the media outlet of the terrorist organization Hezbollah and named a ‘specially global terrorist’ by the State Department, would be protected from revealing their sources.” The letter also argues that justifying requirements to disclose would place “impermissible burdens on the constitutional responsibilities of the president and the executive branch.”
National security has served as a pretext for the US administration for monitoring the phones of thousands of its citizens including journalists, and for mining financial transaction data in attempt to track the money of terrorist organisations. Press reports, especially in the New York Times, revealing the existence of these programmes and highlighting the dangers they represent for civil liberties, have led the government to invoke the need to protect official secrets.
In May, the attorney general himself brandished the threat of prosecutions against news media for violating espionage laws. Then, on 24 June, congressman Peter King (Republican, New York), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, urged the attorney general to bring a prosecution against the New York Times. His call was criticised by other representatives of both the Republican and Democratic parties.
Vice-President Dick Cheney has meanwhile claimed that "the New York Times has now made it more difficult for
us to prevent attacks in the future" while treasury secretary John Snow called the newspaper "arrogant" and