AAN Urges Caution in Leak Investigations and Issuance of Subpoenas to Journalists

The Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN), a nationwide association of more than 100 newsmedia companies representing over 38 million weekly readers in the United States and Canada, is disappointed by the statements made by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday, August 4 signaling an intention to actively pursue and prosecute those in government who engage in the unauthorized disclosure – or “leaking” – of information and a willingness to roll back Department of Justice guidelines revised in 2013 to bolster protections for journalists facing subpoenas from the Department.

We believe the Attorney General’s statement will have a chilling effect on the flow of information to the public when reporting about the affairs of government is becoming both more difficult and more necessary.  We are especially concerned about the message this sends to the state and local officials in the communities we cover, who may seek to push a similar agenda against our sources and our reporters.

“It is unfortunate that the Attorney General made these statements as the current Administration is actively making it more and more difficult for reporters to engage with government officials and do their jobs in any number of ways,” said AAN President Molly Willmott of the Memphis Flyer. “Leaks are one byproduct of preventing reporters from accessing information via customary and traditional means. Our publications would prefer to avoid using confidential sources and have all statements on the record by government employees who can speak authoritatively on a given topic.  That seems to be happening less and less these days, leading those who truly want to inform the public to use other means to ensure the truth gets out. A more active and open dialogue between the government, the press, and the public should be occurring instead of this additional step toward censorship.”

“The free flow of information is a cornerstone of an open and democratic government and society,” said Bradley Zeve, AAN Free Speech Committee Chair and the Founder & CEO of the Monterey County Weekly. “Yet at the Free Speech Keynote at our Annual Convention this July in Washington, D.C., our members learned that the United States was recently downgraded in the world Press Freedom Index issued by Reporters Without Borders, to 43 out of 180. This country should be at the top of that list. But today, journalists, whistleblowers, and other key sources are being wrongly intimidated and threatened.”

AAN unfortunately notes that one of our own, Aaron Cantu of the Santa Fe Reporter, currently faces several criminal charges and more than seventy years in jail on charges stemming from his coverage of protests on Inauguration Day in Washington, D.C.  Withdrawing these charges, and taking steps to reverse the decline in treatment of the media, are other examples of steps this Administration should be taking instead of focusing on shutting down information. The Attorney General and others in this Administration should actively re-engage, not marginalize, reporters going forward.