What Danger Does Government Surveillance Pose to Freedom of the Press?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock


Cyber-security and the threat of computer-based espionage and hackers has become the popular topic among politicians. From President Obama to Republicans in Congress, politicians are in agreement that it’s a national security concern that needs to take some priority in the coming years. But technological advances and the dangers they pose are not isolated to government and military concerns.

There’s also the concerns about government utilizing these same monitoring and investigatory tools foreign hackers in China and elsewhere have turned on the American economy, and using them on American citizens themselves. This fear first spiked with the NSA documents Edward Snowden released outlining data collection programs and the various surveillance abilities of government organizations. The Sony hacks from North Korea were considerable breaches into the information of a company, and demonstrate the sort of information disclosure that can occur if a foreign body wishes harm to a business in the U.S..

Which is where the media comes in. The actual release of Snowden’s documents were done through a foreign publication: The Guardian, a U.K. paper that has also dealt with a fair amount of blowback from its government over the release. The Washington Post was also involved, but the Guardian took the initial steps toward publishing the sensitive information he’d provided. And this is really of very little surprise given the nature of the information and the power of the U.S. government’s intelligence system, and his knowledge of their reach. Only after the fact did American publications join the onslaught of discussion, debate, reporting, and analysis over the surveillance issue. Which brings up an important issue regarding freedom of the press, objective and courageous reporting, and the fear that comes from the knowledge you might be watched.

There are reporters in America who brave bombs, bullets, war-zones, and incredible political intimidation to bring readers the news. But one hopes that the intimidation within the United States does not compare to the intimidation a journalist might face abroad in more dangerous or less cordial situations and political environments. And realistically they do not in any way compare. But the fact of the matter is that cyber-security in the news industry is incredibly important, as are governmental surveillance policing and limitations, because an over-monitored news industry would be a very dangerous thing. That is how objective news and press-born government accountability is lost. How realistic or great a danger is that really?

On the one hand press is almost never perfectly objective, and it’s main goal is never only to inform the public. It also has to make ad revenue, pay the bills, make a profit if possible, and maintain legal protection and viability as an institution. It has to adapt to the changing times, and adapt to readers. It has to build sources and a name for itself that will draw in future sources, which sometimes means not alienating the friends and contacts made during reporting. So media and news outlets are not reporting from a perfect vacuum even without government intimidation, monitoring, or influence taken into account.

But the potential for (and reality of) good, strong, objective journalism is still alive and kicking in America as well as around the world. And government is a legitimate threat to that, as it has always been, but with newer, faster, shinier tools. Sharyl Attkisson has become a loud advocate for freedom of the press in the face of government intimidation, and while some of her input is perhaps career-driven and dramatized, some of it cannot safely be ignored without risk of ignoring a real concern. Chelsea Manning — a former soldier involved in WikiLeaks — wrote an op-ed for The New York Times in June of last year, saying “As Iraq erupts in civil war and America again contemplates intervention, that unfinished business should give new urgency to the question of how the United States military controlled the media coverage of its long involvement there and in Afghanistan.” “I believe that the current limits on press freedom and excessive government secrecy make it impossible for Americans to grasp fully what is happening in the wars we finance,” writes Manning. Perhaps more important than these examples though, is the idea of perception. Journalists now more than ever perceive themselves to be under surveillance. And that is an incredibly dangerous mindset.

According to a new poll from Pew Research, published earlier this month, two out of three (64%) investigative journalists say that they think the U.S. government has likely collected personal communications data about them. When looking only at those investigative reporters who write on national security, foreign affairs, or the government, this number jumps to 71%. There’s no direct indication that reporters are not covering stories they might otherwise cover if not for this perception. Only 3% said that “concerns about electronic surveillance and hacking led them to not pursue a particular story” and only 2% said it made them “consider leaving investigative journalism.”

But a considerable 13% said it did result in their choosing “not [to] reach out to a particular source.” That is a significant effect on a reporter’s process, and not surprising given 71% say they have “not much or no confidence at all” in their Internet service provider’s ability to keep their data private. What’s more, 49% said it changed how they share documents, and 29% said it changed how they communicated with others in their industry. These are tangible and important effects, and they should be an added concern when we consider government intelligence regulation. There must always be a balance between security and the protection of rights, and seeing as freedom of the press helps to protect that balance in its own way, it’s particularly important that this issue receives the attention it deserves.

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