June 8, 2018

Alert: US - RSF deeply concerned by seizure of journalist's records

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is alarmed to learn that years’ worth of a journalist’s phone and email records were secretly seized by prosecutors in connection with an investigation into classified information leaks at the United States Senate.

The seizure of a journalist’s records represents a serious threat to the First Amendment and the work of a free press, said Margaux Ewen, RSF’s North America Director. "In a democracy that respects press freedom, reporters must be free to exercise their profession independently from government interference. RSF condemns the decision to breach this fundamental principle.

The New York Times reported on June 7 that its reporter, Ali Watkins, had her phone and email records going back several years seized as part of an ongoing leak investigation into James A. Wolfe, a former Senate Intelligence Committee aide. Wolfe, who has been charged with lying about his contacts with three reporters to the FBI, had also been in a relationship with Watkins for three years. Wolfe has denied leaking any classified information to journalists. Watkins was told in February that the Justice Department had customer records and subscriber information from telecommunications companies for two email accounts and one of her phone numbers, though they did not obtain the content of the messages.

This is the first known case of a reporter’s records being seized under the Trump administration, but it was a tactic also employed by former President Barack Obama.

The United States ranks 45th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index after falling 2 places in the last year.