In 2023, Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) continued its mission of protecting and defending journalists, whistleblowers, and the fundamental rights of free speech. Here, we bring you five stories that showcase FPF's unwavering commitment to safeguarding journalists and their sources.
By design, FPF cannot access whistleblower submissions on any news outlet’s SecureDrop. This means that it is extremely rare for us to know what news stories come through the open source whistleblowing platform.
However, this year on the Lawfare podcast, we learned that an anonymous whistleblower used SecureDrop to provide over 5,000 pages of documents on Russia's intelligence agencies, including the notorious hacking group Sandworm, which was allegedly responsible for the two shutdowns of Ukraine's electrical grid, the disruption of the 2018 Winter Olympics and the catastrophic 2017 NotPetya cyberattack.
"I am angry about the invasion of Ukraine and the terrible things that are happening there,” said the anonymous whistleblower, "I hope you can use this information to show what is happening behind closed doors." The whistleblower declined to identify themselves, declaring the need to vanish “like a ghost” for security reasons. We’re glad SecureDrop was able to make that happen.
When we established the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker in partnership with the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2017, no one knew what the data would reveal, since no one else was keeping tabs on when journalism was impeded. Now, six years later, the Tracker is relied on by organizations like the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press for its annual year-in-review analyses and by Reporters Without Borders for its ranking of America in the World Press Freedom Index.
The Tracker was also integral to the Knight First Amendment Institute’s report, “Covering Democracy: Protests, Police, and the Press,” which focused on the treatment of journalists during protests, a pattern our Tracker team has highlighted and analyzed in the past. Since 2020, the Tracker has documented over 700 assaults of journalists covering demonstrations — law enforcement is believed to be responsible for 77% of those.
Thanks in large part to the Tracker, we can understand these patterns and are better equipped to proactively address and minimize future threats. With ongoing civil unrest and an impending Presidential election, these insights are increasingly crucial, allowing us to provide journalists with the knowledge and tools to navigate potential risks.
On Aug. 11, the entire police force of Marion County, Kansas, descended upon the Marion County Record newsroom, seizing equipment from reporters, and raiding the home of the editor, Eric Meyer, and Joan Meyer, his mother and newspaper co-owner (who passed away the next day). The raids, ostensibly related to computer abuse allegations, garnered swift action from FPF and were quickly documented by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker with continuous updates for weeks.
FPF organized an urgent meeting among press freedom allies to strategize, share on-the-ground updates, and spotlight the work of a legal defense fund to help the Record. FPF's condemnation resonated across media giants like The New York Times, The Guardian, Fox News, and others, emphasizing the violation of the First Amendment, human decency, and federal law -– the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 — that bans newsroom searches except in limited circumstances that were clearly inapplicable in Marion.
FPF also led national discussions on NewsNation with Chris Cuomo, alongside editor Meyer, as well as on the Scripps News Morning Rush, The Lawfare Podcast, and the News in Context podcast. Due to the enormous outcry, the judge who approved the warrant, Laura Viar, is now the subject of a judicial ethics complaint, while journalists investigate her background and potential conflicts.
Tiplines are vital avenues for whistleblowers to contact journalists and inform the public. However, in order to ensure the privacy and safety of sources, tiplines must be fortified with robust security measures, stringent confidentiality protocols, and user-friendly interfaces.
Setting up such tiplines can be a daunting task for many media organizations. PublicSource, a local nonprofit newsroom based in Pittsburgh, encountered such hurdles when establishing its own pathway for source communication. So, PublicSource reached out to our Digital Security Training team for help establishing secure communication channels using Signal, a widely recognized app that uses encrypted messaging.
The integration of Signal into the PublicSource newsroom came with a unique set of challenges and required a nuanced understanding of factors, from regional constraints to budget considerations. The Digital Security Training team’s write-up on this project serves as a valuable case study other newsrooms can look to, highlighting the importance of collaborative efforts and proactive adaptation to ensure the success of newsroom tiplines.
Journalists shouldn’t have to choose between protecting their confidential sources or going to prison — but right now, many do. This is why FPF has tirelessly campaigned for a reporter’s shield law known as the PRESS Act that would prohibit the government from spying on journalists or threatening them with prison if they don’t burn their sources.
In late 2022, FPF called on select leaders to support the bill via the Chicago Sun-Times, The Salt Lake Tribune, and an appeal by longtime FPF board member John Cusack. These calls to action, along with coalition letters and direct collaboration, got the bill farther than anyone expected and secured key support from major players including Sen. Ron Wyden, Sen. Mike Lee, and Sen. Dick Durbin (who credited us and called our work some of the best advocacy efforts he’d ever seen). As a result, the PRESS Act passed unanimously in the House. Sadly, it was killed last minute at the end of the year thanks to a nonsensical objection from a single senator.
The PRESS Act has since been reintroduced this year and we’ve continued to push it forward. Today, it maintains bipartisan support, with Sen. Lindsey Graham reportedly being added as a co-sponsor. This incredible progress shows the opportunity for systemic change through collaborative effort and strategy.