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2006-08-25,12:03 PM

Tough call for the media

State side with Johan Fernandez

AMERICAN news organisations are facing tough times in the face of allegations by the Bush administration that they are obstructing terrorist-tracking efforts by exposing government methods.

Some want to charge reporters and editors with treason and espionage for publishing stories that they say can compromise America’s national security.

Much of the anger is directed at the New York Times over a report on June 24 that the US government had secretly monitored thousands of international banking transactions since the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 to track suspected terrorists.

The searches involved millions of records held by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), a Belgium-based international cooperative that serves as a clearing house for transactions.

The cooperative serves 7,800 financial institutions in more than 200 countries. Its database, officials say, has provided valuable information about ties between suspected terrorists and groups financing them, and directly led to the capture of al-Qaeda operative Riduan Isamuddin, believed to have masterminded the 2002 bombings in Bali, Indonesia.

The controversy sparked renewed debate about whether the government has gone too far in tracking terrorists, and whether news organisations are obstructing the terrorist-tracking effort by exposing the government’s methods.

Republicans in Congress, conservative commentators and bloggers are blaming the media and urging legal action.

Free speech advocates say there is little legal precedent to pursue such charges, but they expect the Justice Department to soon take some sort of legal action.

President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Press Secretary Tony Snow harshly criticised news coverage about the covert programme.

Bush and Cheney have called the papers’ actions disgraceful, and other federal officials have called for investigations into the news coverage and even prosecution of the editors.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said such an effort to prosecute reporters for treason for reporting on this story is “just really stupid”.

On Thursday, the US House of Representatives debated a resolution that condemns public disclosure of secret surveillance programmes.

Republican lawmakers in both houses of Congress said government employees who revealed details of a secret Treasury Department effort to monitor bank transfers to the New York Times and other news outlets had undermined national security.

However, American news organisations made the right call when they published the stories, said David Carlson, president of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).

“These are the toughest of the tough decisions news organisations must make,” Carlson said. “Sometimes editors and broadcasters have to make the call between the government’s wishes and the rights of American citizens. That’s why our forefathers saw free media as an essential ingredient in self government and as a check against abuse of power.”

Christine Tatum, SPJ president-elect, said this criticism is “a tired, shoot-the-messenger strategy that deflects attention from disturbing questions about the administration’s possible violations of the United States Constitution and American privacy laws”.

Gary Hill, a Minneapolis broadcaster and co-chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee said: “Although we need to consider the potential harm caused by the reporting, we need to consider also the potential harm of sitting on information that the public should have when making decisions about its government.

“Time and again, good, ethical journalists will decide to go with disclosure rather than secrecy even when the stakes are as high as they may be in this case.”

The nation’s founders championed an independent and free press that would hold the government accountable for its actions no matter the cost or harshness of public criticism. Carlson and Tatum said they agreed with New York Times executive editor Bill Keller when he wrote on June 25 that the framers “rejected the idea that it is wise, or patriotic, to always take the President at his word, or to surrender to the government important decisions about what to publish”.

Accuracy in Media editor Cliff Kincaid said: “The Bush Administration has a curious way of dealing with news organisations which disclose classified information and undermine the war on terrorism.”

Faced with the prospect of the New York Times disclosing the existence of a secret programme, the Bush Administration asked that the story not be run but then decided to work with the paper to make sure it had all its information correct.

“If it threatened national security to have the information disclosed, why did the administration help the Times and other news organisations make sure the information was correct and confirm the story with a news conference? The answer, quite obviously, is that administration officials wanted to spin the story in a positive way. This is called taking advantage of a bad situation. But they made a bad situation worse.”

Johan Fernandez is Editor, North America Bureau, based in New York (e-mail: johan10128@aol.com)

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