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Obama administration wins Jefferson Muzzle award for restricting free press

Published time: April 10, 2014 18:46
US President Barack Obama.(AFP Photo / Brendan Smialowski )

US President Barack Obama.(AFP Photo / Brendan Smialowski )

The United States Department of Justice and the White House Press Office are this year’s top winners of a dubious award extended to those considered to be “responsible for some of the more egregious or ridiculous affronts to First Amendment principles.”

On Wednesday this week, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression announced that the US Justice Dept. had topped this year’s list of “Jefferson Muzzle” recipients, an award handed out every April since 1992 “as a means to draw national attention to abridgments of free speech and press and, at the same time, foster an appreciation for those tenets of the First Amendment.”

The White House Press Office was listed in the second slot among this year’s “winners,” trailed immediately by a third-place tie between the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.

It isn’t unusual for the free-speech loving organization named in honor of the third president of the US to condemn federal agencies for infringing on the constitutional rights of American citizens, but the Obama administration swept this year’s honors, undoubtedly lending further credence to allegations that the White House has ravaged First Amendment-protected freedoms by interfering and attempting to influence even the most venerable mainstream press outlets in the country.

According to the Jefferson Center, first place honors this year were awarded to the Justice Dept. due to the Obama administration’s relentless aggressive pursuit of individuals alleged to have leaked government information, while the press office’s routine shunning of journalists from official functions in exchange for regularly relying on a private White House photographer earned that department second place standing. The NSA and DHS were selected not as a result of any new infringing policies put in place by those offices, however, but rather because they went after Americans who parodied the official government seals of either department.

Elsewhere on this year’s list of winners are the North Carolina General Assembly Police and the Kansas Board of Regents rounding out the top five, followed by Modesty Junior College, the Tennessee State Legislature and the principals of schools in Florida and New Jersey.

"From the White House to the statehouse, from universities to high schools, members of the press have had to defend against a variety of challenges, some never seen before," Jefferson Center Director Josh Wheeler said in a statement this week.

Indeed, the Obama White House in particular has been accused in recent years of treating the press in a manner unheard of since the administration of Richard Nixon — an allegation that would seem overblown had it not been made by the likes of the internationally renowned Committee to Protect Journalists and some of the country’s most well respected reporters.

I think we have a real problem,” New York Times national security reporter Shane Scott told the CPJ for their report on eroding press freedoms in the US last October. The administration’s prosecution and persecution of leakers was having a real “deterrent effect,” Shane acknowledged, adding, “If we consider aggressive press coverage of government activities being at the core of American democracy, this tips the balance heavily in favor of the government.”

Six months later, the Jefferson Center agrees and has put the White House’s war on leakers and the journalists accused of “aiding and abetting” them at the top of this year’s list.

The government surely has a legitimate interest in identifying those disclosing such information,” the center said in an explanation included in this week’s report. “Yet if the press is to fulfill its role as a government watchdog and report what it sees to the public at large, it has to be able to assure its sources of confidentiality.”

Imperative as it may be, doing as much has been made harder than ever due largely to the administration’s targeting of leakers: WikiLeaks source Chelsea Manning was sentenced last summer to 35-years in prison for disclosing state secrets, and Edward Snowden — the former intelligence contractor who last year began to supply journalists with classified documents pilfered from the NSA — is wanted for espionage in America and has spent nearly the last year in Russia as a result.

And though these instances are few and far between, the severity of these prosecutions and similar investigations into outlets like Fox News and the Associated Press waged by the Obama administration to narrow in on leakers has been credited with creating a chilling effect that is allowing for the government to essentially scare sources and reporters from covering certain topics, lest they wish to risk a federal prison sentence: former Central Intelligence Analyst John Kiriakou is currently serving time at a correctional facility in Pennsylvania for confirming the name of a colleague to an established reporter, and last month State Department advisor Stephen Kim was sent behind bars for having shared secrets with a Fox Reporter — which, in turn, led to the Justice Department seeking in secret that journalist’s private emails. In that instance, the Washington Post wrote recently, “court documents in the Kim case reveal how deeply investigators explored the private communications of a working journalist.”

But when the government hasn’t been hounding journalists for speaking to sources, it’s been influencing the way the world sees its news to a certain degree. The White House Press Office, the Jefferson Center wrote, was also awarded a Muzzle award this year because the administration has “dramatically limited” access to the president for photojournalists, instead compelling a government cameraman to create the images dispersed worldwide by the White House to narrate the administration’s otherwise-often-secret inner workings.

The White House counters that it has released more images of the President at work than any previous administration. While that may be true, the journalistic value of such photographs is a product of their content, not quantity,” the center said. “For systematically rejecting independent journalistic access in favor of its own sanitized visual record, the White House Press Office has earned a 2014 Jefferson Muzzle.”

Tied at third-place, the NSA and DHS were both deemed Muzzle-worthy by the Jefferson Center for spending three ears pursuing an American citizen who designed parodies of those agencies logos, including one which touted the “US Department of Homeland Stupidity.”

The Obama administration was last awarded a Jefferson Muzzle in 2011 for what the center described then as restricting media access to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a year prior.

Since 1992, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression has celebrated the birth and ideals of its namesake by calling attention to those who in the past year forgot or disregarded Mr. Jefferson’s admonition that freedom of speech ‘cannot be limited without being lost,’” the organization says on its website.

Previously, President George H.W. Bush, the administration of Pres. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign and key members of his cabinet were awarded Muzzles.