US surveillance hindering lawyers and journalists, study finds
Study finds large-scale snooping programmeis having an impact on democratic rights
Large-scale surveillance by the US government has begun to have an impact on press freedom and broader democratic rights, a study released yesterday showed.
The joint report by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch found that the vast surveillance efforts aimed at thwarting terrorist attacks had undermined press freedom, the public's right to information as well as rights to legal counsel.
"The work of journalists and lawyers is central to our democracy," said report author Alex Sinha. "When their work suffers, so do we."
The report is based on interviews with 92 people in the United States, including journalists, lawyers, and current and former US government officials. The group included 46 journalists representing a wide range of news organisations, including several Pulitzer Prize winners.
The journalists said the revelations about widespread surveillance by US intelligence agencies had magnified existing concerns about a government crackdown on leaks.
In the current atmosphere, sources are more hesitant to discuss even unclassified issues of public concern, fearing a loss of security clearances, dismissal or criminal investigation.
The report said some reporters were using elaborate techniques to avoid surveillance such as encrypted communications, disposable phones or avoiding the internet and other networks entirely. The journalists said they feared coming under suspicion for doing their jobs.
The journalists said the increase in the US government's prosecution of officials in leak investigations prompted initial concern, which was magnified by revelations from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Charlie Savage, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, said it was not lost on journalists or their sources that there had been eight criminal cases against sources under the current administration and three before under all previous administrations combined.
Peter Maass of online publication The Intercept, said things "got worse significantly after the Snowden documents came into circulation. If you suspected the government had the capability to do mass surveillance, you found out it was certainly true."
Lawyers, meanwhile, complained that surveillance had created concerns about their ability to build trust and develop legal strategy in a confidential environment. Some lawyers are using techniques similar to those used by journalists to avoid leaving a digital trail.
The researchers interviewed 42 practicing lawyers, including criminal defence lawyers, military judge advocates and other legal professionals. Also interviewed were five current or former senior government officials "with knowledge of the US government's surveillance programmes or related policies".