As the current administration’s crackdown on leaks continues to intensify, journalists are often under fire for using unnamed sources—the president has been vocal in his frustrations to this extent—and it is becoming increasingly risky to both disclose and publish classified information. Since President Donald Trump took office, two whistleblowers—former NSA contractor Reality Winner and FBI agent Terry Albury—have already pleaded guilty to violating the Espionage Act, legislation adopted during World War I to prosecute individuals who shared government secrets with enemies of the United States. In August 2017 Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed in a briefing to take a stand against anyone who leaks classified government information, and suggested the Justice Department may pursue legal action against media outlets and journalists who publish such information. In the months leading up to that briefing, the Justice Department tripled the number of leak investigations it was pursuing.
That the Justice Department would consider prosecuting journalists and news outlets for merely publishing classified information rang alarms in the media community. While prosecuting whistleblowers became all too common under President Barack Obama—whose administration prosecuted more whistleblowers than any previous administration combined—the former conceded that attempts to pursue legal action against publishers would be detrimental to press freedom.
“Under an administration that has been openly hostile to journalists and media outlets, and given indications that the Justice Department may consider media subpoenas in leak investigations, RSF is worried that journalists and media outlets won’t be spared as these investigations will most likely continue to intensify," said Margaux Ewen, Director of RSF’s North America bureau. “Without whistleblowers, journalists would be unable to report on issues of immense public interest. In many ways, whistleblowing is the lifeblood of investigative journalism and of the free press our democracy relies on.”
These concerns became all the more relevant in June when the Justice Department secretly seized New York Times reporter Ali Watkins’ phone and email records in connection with an investigation into classified information leaks at the United States Senate. This is the first known case of a reporter’s records being seized under the Trump administration, though it was a tactic employed by former President Barack Obama as well.
The United States ranks 45th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index.
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