According to the newspaper, the journalists were working on a report regarding James Comey (the former FBI director) and his investigations into possible links between Russia and Trump’s presidential campaign team in 2016. It is the third time in a month that a media outlet claims that Trump’s administration seized data from journalists. The Washington Post previously revealed that the Justice Department had obtained phone records of journalists, who were at the time also covering the FBI’s investigation on Russia’s interference during the 2016 presidential elections. A few days later, CNN announced that phone and email records of one of their reporters had also been seized.
By obtaining journalists’ data, the US government was trying to trace their sources. This seriously undermines the rule of protection of sources and threatens to silence them. As the New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet stated, such practice “profoundly undermines press freedom”. President Joe Biden also condemned Trump’s administration’s actions, and assured he would not allow his Justice Department to seize journalists’ phone or email records.
The New York Times revelation comes just days after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the UK government's mass surveillance regime violated media freedom for decades. Thanks to this landmark judgment, journalists in the UK but also European Member States now have a stronger legal basis to defend the anonymity of their sources.
The National Writers Union said: “While we condemn the White House spying on journalists, we are certainly not shocked by the news, when in the past more than 400 journalists were assaulted, over 150 were attacked, and 100 or more reported having equipment damaged while working. The attack on journalists is in fact an attack on journalism and on the public’s right to know, which strikes at the heart of any democracy.”
Newsguild CWA added: “While aggressive scrutiny of journalists also took place during the administrations of former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the recent revelations appear to be part of a growing trend threatening free, independent journalism worldwide.”
IFJ General Secretary, Anthony Bellanger, said: “Illegal spying by governments is becoming a worrying global trend. From non-democratic countries to the United Kingdom, some other European countries and now the United States, we’re witnessing dozens of cases in which the authorities illegally tracked journalists’ records and spied on their work, in serious violation of their fundamental professional rights. IFJ affiliates must work together to stop this trend.”