The GOP’s press freedom problem is bigger than Trump

Seth Stern

Director of Advocacy

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry fashioned himself a defender of free speech when he sued the Biden administration for attempting to influence social media sites. Now he's one of many Republican politicians baselessly threatening to prosecute news outlets for terrorism. Jeff Landry by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

There’s been plenty of concern expressed in recent weeks about Donald Trump’s threats to “come after” the press in a potential second term. We certainly share those concerns.

But the Republican party is not waiting for Trump’s return to start weaponizing the law against journalism. For example, 14 state attorneys general and 15 members of Congress are already calling for news outlets to be investigated and even prosecuted for “material support” of terrorism by working with Palestinian freelance photojournalists. The attorneys general are arguably even threatening criminal charges against journalists for criticizing Israel.

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Stunts prompted by debunked “report”

The politicians’ feigned indignation is over a November report baselessly suggesting that Reuters, CNN, The Associated Press and The New York Times must’ve had advance knowledge of Hamas’s attack on Israel when they bought photographs from the Gaza-based freelancers.

But here’s the problem: the organization that issued the report, ironically called HonestReporting, has already admitted that it was merely “raising questions” without evidence, and said it believed the journalists who denied advance knowledge of the attack.

Subsequent investigations have confirmed that the photojournalists did not accompany Hamas as it carried out its attacks — they got to the scene hours later. It’s journalists’ job to find and follow the news, even terrible news, often at great personal danger.

Don’t like Palestinian journalists? Then let others in

International outlets, it should be noted, have no choice but to rely on Palestinian freelancers because international journalists (except those that embed with Israeli troops) are not allowed into Gaza, despite their pleas for access.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Gaza-based journalists have had contact with Hamas — after all, it’s the government there. That doesn't mean they're supporters of the Oct. 7 terrorist attack any more than it means that conservative journalists with sources in the Biden administration are secret Democrats. The idea that news outlets commit crimes by buying photographs from anyone who has ever been in the presence of a member of Hamas is preposterous.

And tellingly, none of the politicians supposedly concerned about journalists’ alleged connections to Hamas have urged Israel and Egypt to let international journalists in (or to stop killing the journalists already there).

AGs threaten to criminalize critical reporting on Israel

The politicians must know that there’s no basis to even speculate that funds paid to freelancers made their way into Hamas’s coffers — let alone with news outlets’ knowledge. That's likely why they’re floating even more tenuous, and dangerous, interpretations of “material support.”

As our U.S. Press Freedom Tracker notes, the attorneys generals’ letter

"highlighted that 'material support' for terrorist groups — both a federal and state crime — can include 'writing and distributing publications supporting the organization.' It did not elaborate on what would be considered support, potentially chilling any reporting that does not unequivocally condemn Hamas or unilaterally support Israel."

The letter then concludes with “We will continue to follow your reporting … your organizations are now on notice. Follow the law.” How are news outlets supposed to take that other than as a threat to prosecute them for their reporting?

Other Republican officials double down

Accusing major news outlets of knowingly supporting terrorism is serious, and serious people wouldn’t base such claims on admitted (and debunked) speculation. But the members of Congress and State attorneys general behind these political stunts aren’t serious people.

Same goes for Republican lawmakers threatening to defund Voice of America over its editorial policies on the use of the word “terrorist.” That push comes just months after a federal investigation detailed the full extent of the Trump administration’s efforts to politicize VOA.

And then there’s Sen. JD Vance’s letter asking the Department of Justice why it isn’t prosecuting a journalist who called for “resistance” against a second Trump administration under the same legal theories being used to prosecute Trump.

We might be inclined to dismiss Vance’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek letter as trolling (albeit irresponsible trolling) if it wasn’t, by our count, the sixth Republican-led letter in the last month proposing to prosecute journalists, censor them or both.

With the barrage of new letters it’s easy to forget that Sen. Tom Cotton also threatened journalists with criminal charges over the HonestReporting hoax. And seven Republicans (and two Democrats) previously wrote to Reuters to raise “questions.”

Republicans: What happened to free expression?

Either these lawmakers don’t understand the First Amendment and the concept of editorial independence, or they don’t care. Our guess is it’s the latter.

After all, it’s not long since Republicans were outraged that government employees would dare communicate with social media companies to express concerns about content. Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey, who is pursuing a lawsuit against the Biden administration over social media "censorship," went as far to accuse it of “the worst First Amendment violation in our nation’s history.”

Just last week, the Republican-led House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government held a hearing to “examine the federal government's involvement in social media censorship, as well as the recent attacks on independent journalism and free expression.”

But days later, a member of that subcommittee, W. Gregory Steube of Florida, signed the letter demanding news organizations give lawmakers access to their files so they can fish for support for their sham investigation. Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who joined the lawsuit against the Biden administration, signed the letter threatening to prosecute four major news outlets over discredited speculation. What champions of free expression they are.

And Sen. Bill Haggerty, who this year pushed legislation to stop "secret government-directed speech suppression and viewpoint censorship," saw no contradiction in leading the letter threatening to defund VOA over its editorial decisions. Well, we've got to give him this: at least he's not keeping his brand of censorship a secret.

We’re not downplaying concerns about government interference with social media content. “Jawboning” is a complex but real First Amendment issue. It’s especially problematic when government officials “suggest” social media companies remove disfavored content at the same time lawmakers are threatening to legislate them out of existence. But that concern seems to pale in comparison to public threats to investigate, prosecute and defund news outlets — all to score cheap political points.

What about protecting sources?

And remember when, just a few short months ago, Republican members of Congress accused Democrats of betraying the First Amendment by asking journalist Matt Taibbi about his sources for his “Twitter Files” reporting?

We agreed with them then, and we still do. We called it “disturbing” when Democratic Rep. Stacey Plaskett again inquired about Taibbi’s sources in a letter alluding to the prospect of prosecuting him for perjury.

That’s why it’s particularly troubling that the letter from Republican lawmakers does the exact same thing, but far worse: Demanding that news outlets produce journalists’ newsgathering and source materials, including correspondence with government officials, so they can fish for evidence to support HonestReporting’s admitted speculation.

Like HonestReporting, they do not claim to have any evidence — merely “questions.” But they’re threatening to issue subpoenas to the news outlets if they don’t comply. And they’re not just alluding to potential perjury charges — they sent their letter knowing full well that a senator and 14 attorneys general have expressly threatened felonies.

We get it, hypocrisy from politicians should never shock anyone. But elected officials calling to imprison journalists always should. And the problem is clearly bigger than Donald Trump.

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