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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and several leading news organizations are calling on members of Parliament to uphold Britain’s commitment to freedom of the press on the eve of a hearing of the Home Affairs Committee at which the editor of the Guardian newspaper has been ordered to testify. Editor Alan Rusbridger will be questioned about the national security implications of its publication of articles based on information leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
“As news organizations, editors, and journalists who often report on government actions that officials seek to keep secret, we write to the Committee on the eve of the forthcoming appearance of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger to express our grave concern over pointed calls by those in authority for censorship of the Guardian and criminal prosecution of its journalists in the name of national security. Such sanctions, and the chilling impact created by even the threat to impose them, undermine the independence and integrity of the press that are essential for democracy to function,” the letter stated.
Co-signing the letter with the Reporters Committee are the American Society of News Editors; The Associated Press; The E.W. Scripps Company; The McClatchy Company; The New York Times Company; The New Yorker; Newspaper Association of America; ProPublica; The Seattle Times Company; Society of Professional Journalists; The Washington Post; and World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA).
The disclosures published in the Guardian “may have embarrassed or angered political leaders, but they have educated the public on critically important matters and sparked a valuable global debate over the proper exercise of the vast surveillance powers that now exist,” the media letter continued. “It is the responsibility of journalists to provide the type of accurate and in-depth news reports published by the Guardian and others that have informed the public and framed important, unresolved issues concerning the balance between security and privacy. Vigorous news coverage and the debate it fosters advance the public interest.”
Further, the letter noted it is “unwise and counterproductive” to invoke security concerns or charge that a news organization has aided terrorists “simply by providing citizens with information they need to know,” particularly when editors have demonstrated care and sensitivity to the security concerns raised by government officials. “The reporting has been both responsible and, given the intense displeasure of those in power, courageous.”
British politicians have called for criminal prosecution of the Guardian, an investigation by Scotland Yard has been launched, and the newspaper has been threatened with “D notices” prohibiting publication of national security information.
“To the rest of the world, it appears that press freedom itself is under attack in Britain today,” the letter stated. “These aggressive actions intimidate journalists and their sources. They chill reporting on issues of national security and on the conduct of government more generally” and encourage repressive regimes around the world to undermine an independent press.
“We therefore urge the Committee to use the occasion of Mr. Rusbridger’s appearance to reaffirm Britain’s commitment to a vigorous, free, and independent press,” the letter concluded. “It is important to acknowledge that the Snowden revelations, filtered to the public through responsible journalists, have served the public interest. And it is equally important to respect the autonomy of the newsroom. Damage to democracy and to the credibility of elected governments inevitably is inflicted when disapproval of truthful reporting causes officials to intrude into the internal editorial decisions of news organizations.”
About the Reporters Committee
Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.