Obama administration's politically-driven suppression of news in U.S.
In the United States, under the Obama administration, politically-driven suppression of news takes a different form careful not to exhibit to the rest of the world that covert censorship is in operation. The White House has placed obstacles, not very obvious to the rest of the world, restricting media access putting in place "excessive controls" on public information by federal agencies, bringing it "politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies."
While the United States, as official policy, declares to the rest of the world that 'dissemination of information' with no road blocks an essential ingredient for a democratic society, free access by the media to obtain information from government agencies and their activities a foundation of a free society, preventing information from getting to the public in an accurate and timely manner undermines the democratic system, the Obama administration has in fact placed censorship on news in a covert manner that the rest of the world is blinded to the 'real situation' in the United States when it comes to freedom of the media, expression and right to dissent.
Over three dozen journalist organizations including the Radio Television Digital News Association, National Press Foundation, and the Society of Professional Journalists, have asked President Obama, in a special communication, to drop the "excessive controls" on public information by federal agencies, branding it "politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies."
Thirty-eight journalism and open government groups July 8 called on President Obama to stop practices in federal agencies that prevent important information from getting to the public.
The national organizations sent a letter to Obama urging changes to policies that constrict information flow to the public, including prohibiting journalists from communicating with staff without going through public information offices, requiring government PIOs to vet interview questions and monitoring interviews between journalists and sources.
“The practices have become more and more pervasive throughout America, preventing information from getting to the public in an accurate and timely matter,” said David Cuillier, president of the Society of Professional Journalists.
The letter outlines specific examples of the excessive information control, considered by some as a form of censorship:
• Officials blocking reporters’ requests to talk to specific staff people;
• Excessive delays in answering interview requests that stretch past reporters’ deadlines;
• Officials conveying information “on background,” refusing to give reporters what should be public information unless they agree not to say who is speaking.
• Federal agencies blackballing reporters who write critically of them.
Never before has such a broad-based coalition of journalism and good-governance organizations spoken out on this issue. The growing number of examples of “mediated access” have not just frustrated journalists but have led to specific cases of important information not reaching the public.
“Our members find that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency press staff routinely block them from getting needed information — even in a public health crisis, even when the agency is rolling out new regulations and it's important to localize the story,” said Beth Parke, executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists. “Anytime officials suppress information or downplay scientific findings, they are interfering with the public’s right to know. When reporters are ignored, and access is denied, news stories suffer and the public is cheated.”
Following is the complete text of the letter sent by thirty-eight journalism and open government groups to President Obama:
(Begin Text) You recently expressed concern that frustration in the country is breeding cynicism about democratic government. You need look no further than your own administration for a major source of that frustration – politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies. We call on you to take a stand to stop the spin and let the sunshine in.
Over the past two decades, public agencies have increasingly prohibited staff from communicating with journalists unless they go through public affairs offices or through political appointees. This trend has been especially pronounced in the federal government. We consider these restrictions a form of censorship -- an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear.
The stifling of free expression is happening despite your pledge on your first day in office to bring “a new era of openness” to federal government – and the subsequent executive orders and directives which were supposed to bring such openness about.
Recent research has indicated the problem is getting worse throughout the nation, particularly at the federal level. Journalists are reporting that most federal agencies prohibit their employees from communicating with the press unless the bosses have public relations staffers sitting in on the conversations. Contact is often blocked completely.
When public affairs officers speak, even about routine public matters, they often do so confidentially in spite of having the title “spokesperson.” Reporters seeking interviews are expected to seek permission, often providing questions in advance. Delays can stretch for days, longer than most deadlines allow. Public affairs officers might send their own written responses of slick non-answers. Agencies hold on-background press conferences with unnamed officials, on a not-for-attribution basis.
In many cases, this is clearly being done to control what information journalists – and the audience they serve – have access to. A survey found 40 percent of public affairs officers admitted they blocked certain reporters because they did not like what they wrote.
Some argue that controlling media access is needed to ensure information going out is correct. But when journalists cannot interview agency staff, or can only do so under surveillance, it undermines public understanding of, and trust in, government. This is not a “press vs. government” issue. This is about fostering a strong democracy where people have the information they need to self-govern and trust in its governmental institutions.
It has not always been this way. In prior years, reporters walked the halls of agencies and called staff people at will. Only in the past two administrations have media access controls been tightened at most agencies. Under this administration, even non-defense agencies have asserted in writing their power to prohibit contact with journalists without surveillance. Meanwhile, agency personnel are free speak to others -- lobbyists, special-interest representatives, people with money -- without these controls and without public oversight.
Here are some recent examples:
• The New York Times ran a story last December on the soon-to-be implemented ICD-10 medical coding system, a massive change for the health care system that will affect the whole public. But the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), one of the federal agencies in charge of ICD-10, wouldn’t allow staff to talk to the reporter.
• A reporter with Investigative Post, an online news organization in New York, asked three times without success over the span of six weeks to have someone at EPA answer questions about the agency's actions regarding the city of Buffalo’s alleged mishandling of “universal waste” and hazardous waste.
• A journalist with Reuters spent more than a month trying to get EPA’s public affairs office to approve him talking with an agency scientist about the effects of climate change. The public affairs officer did not respond to him after his initial request, nor did her supervisor, until the frustrated journalist went over their heads and contacted EPA’s chief of staff.
The undersigned organizations ask that you seek an end to this restraint on communication in federal agencies. We ask that you issue a clear directive telling federal employees they’re not only free to answer questions from reporters and the public, but actually encouraged to do so. We believe that is one of the most important things you can do for the nation now, before the policies become even more entrenched.
We also ask you provide an avenue through which any incidents of this suppression of communication may be reported and corrected. Create an ombudsman to monitor and enforce your stated goal of restoring transparency to government and giving the public the unvarnished truth about its workings. That will go a long way toward dispelling Americans’ frustration and cynicism before it further poisons our democracy. (End Text)
As recently as May 1, Douglas Frantz, State Department's Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs marking World Press Freedom Day 2014 gave this lecture to the rest of the world about media freedom.
He declared "the State Department understands that democracy and liberty depend on a free press. The way a government responds to criticism is what holds governments accountable. We may not always like what’s written or spoken about us. We may not always agree with it. But we understand in this country the ultimate value of freedom of the press. Shutting down opposing views, whether by jailing journalists or trying to block social media sites, or worse, is not a demonstration of a government’s strength; it’s a symptom of a government’s weakness."
He then gave the following canard that the United States doesn't obstruct dissemination of information: "So I do want to point out that, in defense of the United States and this Administration, despite the massive leak of very damaging national security information by Edward Snowden, the U.S. government has not threatened reporters or publications involved in disseminating that information. That’s not who we are. That’s not what should happen in a democracy."
- Asian Tribune -