In a sea change for press freedom, Biden administration vows not to spy on reporters doing their job

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Promoting press freedom in the 21st century

President Biden at his desk

After a month of disclosures about the Trump Justice Department pursuing surveillance records of journalists through leak investigation subpoenas — culminating in yesterday’s revelation of a subpoena and a gag order pertaining to four New York Times journalists, served by the Trump administration and initially defended by the current Department of Justice — the Biden administration has announced a new policy that could signal a major shift in the interaction of press freedom and state surveillance.

White House press secretary Jen Psaski released a statement today saying “the issuing of subpoenas for the records of reporters in leak investigations is not consistent with the President’s policy direction to the Department.” The Justice Department separately told reporters: “in a change to its longstanding practice, [the DOJ] will not seek compulsory legal process in leak investigations to obtain source information from members of the news media doing their jobs."

The following statement can be attributed to Freedom of the Press Foundation executive director Trevor Timm:

This announcement is a potential sea change for press freedom rights in the United States. Over the past decade — spanning multiple administrations run by both parties — the Justice Department has increasingly spied on reporters doing their job, casting a chill over investigative reporting and putting countless whistleblowers at risk.

While we’re encouraged to see this announcement ending this invasive and disturbing tactic, the devil is — of course — in the details. The Justice Department must now write this categorical bar of journalist surveillance into its official ‘media guidelines,’ and Congress should also immediately enshrine the rules into law to ensure no administration can abuse its power again. If they follow through, this commendable and vitally important decision by the Biden administration has the potential to stem the tide of more than ten years of erosion of press freedom.

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