Saturday, July 2, 2011

Journalists call for ending censorship in the federal government

Over the last 10-20 years, agencies in the federal government have begun forbidding any employee to speak to any reporter unless all contacts are under the surveillance of the agency's press office.

The restrictions are severe censorship, akin to China's policies of putting "minders" on reporters.

Last fall, the Society of Professional Journalists called for an end to the practice.

The resolution is below;

Demanding an end to censorship caused by ‘Mandated Clearance’

Whereas, it has become increasing common for public agencies at all levels of government to prohibit their employees from communicating with journalists unless agency public relations officials are notified and/or those officials grant clearance or permission for employees to speak, and

Whereas, surveillance of government employees who communicate to journalists inevitably chills and limits what many employees are willing to tell journalists, even when critical information that should be public is at stake, and

Whereas, these prohibitions are a form of government censorship through: restriction of the availability of interviews; requiring government monitoring of interviews; limiting what may be asked or said during interviews; imposing a lengthy clearance process through multiple layers of government; and enabling surveillance by government officials of what scientists and other sources say to journalists, and

Whereas, public agencies do not generally place such restrictions on communications with other persons, including lobbyists and other representatives of special interests, and

Whereas, such limits on journalists impede vigorous, frequent communication with agencies and impede learning about their culture and internal workings, and

Whereas, this hinders the practice of quality journalism and these restrictions hide and foster malfeasance and incompetence in the agencies, and

Whereas, President Barack Obama has declared, “My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government,”

Therefore, be it resolved that the Society of Professional Journalists, in convention assembled in Las Vegas, Nev., for its 101st celebration of journalism that SPJ urges President Obama to declare that all such restrictions in the federal executive branch are to be ended and to establish a mechanism by which any continuing restrictions can be reported to the highest level of his administration and subsequently eliminated; and

Be it further resolved that SPJ calls on President Obama to create a model for agencies on all levels of government by declaring that, except in cases where information is legally secret or confidential, federal staff members have the right and the responsibility to discuss the workings of the public’s business with journalists, honestly and openly, without delay, restrictions, surveillance or mandated notification of third parties, before or after the communication, and

Be it further resolved that when journalists independently decide to contact public relations offices, agencies have the responsibility: to the public to respond promptly; to never forbid that conversations take place or monitor conversations; to never place constraints on who the reporter will speak to or what may be said; and to never clear conversations with third parties in the agency, unless there are specific legal reasons for doing so, and

Be it further resolved that state and local governmental agencies to lift similar restrictions, and

Be it further resolved that news media everywhere should, whenever possible, reveal in their reporting when these types of restrictions are placed on their newsgathering and that they expose practices that restrict the free flow of information and threaten the public welfare.

[October 2010]

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