Friends of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker:
Each month, this newsletter opens with a snapshot of categories from our home page. Above is what we’ve documented so far this year.
Spying on Journalists
I have a weird habit of reading magazines by starting with the back inside cover and working toward the front cover. If we were to talk about news in the press freedom world in that same fashion, I’d tell you that Attorney General Garland Merrick met with executives from The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN and together with President Joe Biden publicly vowed to not spy on journalists doing their jobs.
The cover story, of course, would be that the Trump administration Department of Justice sought — and in two cases obtained — confidential phone and email records of multiple reporters across multiple years. The Biden administration, at least initially, continued to pursue these legal orders.
In May, the Washington Post reported that phone records from 2017 of three of its reporters had been sought and obtained by the Department of Justice in 2020 over their reporting on the Trump administration's communications with Russia during the 2016 election.
On June 2, the DOJ informed The New York Times that the agency secretly obtained phone records of four of the newspaper’s reporters.
Two days later, on June 4, a federal court lifted a gag order that had been placed on a Times attorney so that he could inform the organization about a January attempt by the Justice Department to obtain email records from Google of those same four reporters.
The Burden of Subpoenas
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Tracker partner and advisory board member, highlighted in its annual press freedom report how 2020 was the third year in a row that the number of subpoenas and legal orders reported to the Tracker increased. An important trend, it said, because “subpoenas can impose a significant financial, emotional, and professional burden on journalists and news outlets and take time away from reporting the news.”
The Tracker organizes subpoenas and legal orders by the date on which they were filed. We documented 35 for 2020, which includes the orders for the Washington Post and New York Times reporters’ phone records that just came to light. So far in 2021, we’ve documented seven.
Other Noteworthy 2021 Subpoenas
In March, Energy Transfer LP, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, subpoenaed separately Unicorn Riot and its reporter Niko Georgiades for all documents and communications relating to the nonprofit media organization’s coverage of the pipeline project.
In April, Fenit Nirappil, now a journalist for the Post, was subpoenaed as part of a lawsuit for documents related to his work on stories published while he was in college nearly a decade earlier. Nirappil, posting on Twitter, said he “was not going to roll over,” and RCFP called the subpoena “staggeringly broad.”
Also in April, the Federal Bureau of Investigation subpoenaed Gannett Company, publisher of USA Today, for the outlet’s readership information. Attorneys for Gannett called it an “unconstitutional demand.” After public outcry, the FBI then withdrew the subpoena on June 5, claiming it had found the information elsewhere.
Cover to Cover
At the Tracker, we keep meticulous records of press freedom violations in the U.S. so that when news happens, like multiple major news organizations learning how their reporters’ phone and email records were secretly seized, we can put it in context. However you use and read the Tracker, you can support our work here.
Managing Editor, U.S. Press Freedom Tracker