Media watchdogs fret over seizing of reporter records in US probe

The New York Times and media rights groups said the seizing of the records of one of its journalists represents a threat to press freedom

Washington (AFP) – Media watchdog groups expressed alarm Friday over the seizing of a journalist’s records as part of a probe into intelligence leaks resulting in the indictment of a congressional staffer.

The Justice Department late Thursday announced the indictment of James Wolfe, 57, on three counts of making false statements about his contacts with three reporters.

As part of the probe, the Justice Department seized years of records related to two email accounts and a phone number belonging to New York Times reporter Ali Watkins, the newspaper reported. 

The seizing of records raises constitutional concerns about press freedom, activists said. At the same time, the admission of a personal relationship between the reporter and the source raised questions about journalistic ethics.

Committee to Protect Journalists program director Alexandra Ellerbeck called the government’s action a “dangerous precedent,” arguing that journalists must be able to protect the confidentiality of their sources.

“We fear (this action) could be an opening salvo in an ongoing battle over reporters’ ability to protect their sources,” Ellerbeck said in a statement.

The Freedom Forum Institute, a media rights organization, said the case is the first in the Trump administration in which a reporter’s records have been seized.

“#PressFreedom advocates consider seizing journalists’ records to be an intrusion on First Amendment freedoms,” the group said in a tweet.

Politico’s media writer Michael Calderone described the seizure as “an alarming threat to press freedom.”

The case raised new concerns about whether journalists would be targeted as part of national security investigations, despite the constitutional protection of the media under the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

In a previous case under the Obama administration, a New York Times reporter faced criminal charges over a news source, but the case was later dropped.

New York Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said in a statement, “Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy and we believe that communications between journalists and their sources demand protection.”

She added that the Justice Department’s actions “will endanger reporters’ ability to promise confidentiality to their sources and, ultimately, undermine the ability of a free press to shine a much needed light on government actions.”

The Times noted, meanwhile, that Watkins had been in a three-year romantic relationship with Wolfe, and that the indictment is based on false statements about the relationship.

This raises ethical questions along with the questions of constitutional protection, said Stephen Ward, a founder of the University of Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics who now writes the blog Media Morals.

“Most people say this kind of relationship creates a  conflict of interest, and it creates all sorts of problems when this becomes public,” Ward told AFP.

“The journalist’s integrity becomes damaged, and if they do have a story to tell people will question whether it’s based on personal interests.”

Nonetheless, Ward said it is “very serious to seize journalist’s papers, it certainly is a First Amendment issue.”