The Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) strongly opposes actions taken last week by prosecutors from the Department of Justice, who obtained several years’ worth of phone and email data from Ali Watkins, a reporter who has worked for major publications such as Buzzfeed and the New York Times. In addition to joining with the other members of the News Media for Open Government coalition, AAN is separately calling on the Department of Justice to explain its actions in collecting these records and demonstrate a stronger commitment to freedom of the press going forward.
“It was quite shocking to learn that federal officials had clandestinely seized a reporter’s phone and Email records,” said Molly Willmott, AAN President and Special Projects Director of the Memphis Flyer. “That the content of the communications were not reviewed by prosecutors is no consolation. This will certainly chill sources journalists rely on to provide valuable information to the public. Our members are likely to feel the impact more than many, as we are less likely to have the resources to adequately adjust our newsgathering operations to make sources continue to feel comfortable in coming forward – and it is our sources, who often come from already-marginalized or threatened communities, who need the most reassurance or protection.”
AAN challenges the Department of Justice to prove that it is committed to First Amendment rights and transparency by not only explaining why prosecutors felt the need to seize these communications records, but also why they needed to do so in such a secretive manner. Most important, we would like to know whether the Department of Justice followed its own guidelines regarding issuance of subpoenas to or involving journalists – including whether this subpoena was personally approved by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. We also call on the Department of Justice to follow those guidelines as strictly as possible going forward.