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US surveillance hampering work of journalists and lawyers

The United States' large scale surveillance programme is hampering the work of US-based journalists and lawyers, a report jointly prepared by two human rights groups said.

world Updated: Jul 29, 2014 12:09 IST
surveillance programme,journalists,lawyers

The United States' large scale surveillance programme is hampering the work of US-based journalists and lawyers, a report jointly prepared by two human rights groups said.

The report -- "With Liberty to Monitor All: How Large-Scale US Surveillance is Harming Journalism, Law, and American Democracy," -- is based on extensive interviews with dozens of journalists, lawyers, and senior US officials.

Prepared by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the report finds that government surveillance and secrecy are undermining press freedom, the publics right to information, and the right to counsel, all human rights essential to a healthy democracy.

Running into 120 pages, the report documents how national security journalists and lawyers are adopting elaborate steps or otherwise modifying their practices to keep communications, sources, and other confidential information secure in light of revelations of unprecedented US government surveillance of electronic communications and transactions.

"The work of journalists and lawyers is central to our democracy. When their work suffers, so do we," said author of the report, Alex Sinha, Aryeh Neier Fellow at Human Rights Watch and ACLU.

According to the report, surveillance has magnified existing concerns among journalists and their sources over the administration's crackdown on leaks.

The crackdown includes new restrictions on contact between intelligence officials and the media, an increase in leak prosecutions, and the Insider Threat Program, which requires federal officials to report one another for "suspicious" behaviour that might betray an intention to leak information.

Journalists interviewed for the report said that surveillance intimidates sources, making them more hesitant to discuss even unclassified issues of public concern.

The sources fear they could lose their security clearances, be fired, or in the worst case, come under criminal investigation, the report said.

"People are increasingly scared to talk about anything, including unclassified matters that are of legitimate public concern," observed one Pulitzer Prize winner.

Noting that the questions raised by surveillance are complex, the report says, the government has an obligation to protect national security, and in some cases, it is legitimate for government to restrict certain rights to that end.

At the same time, international human rights and constitutional law set limits on the state's authority to engage in activities like surveillance, which have the potential to undermine so many other rights, it said, adding that the current, large-scale, often indiscriminate US approach to surveillance carries enormous costs.

"It erodes global digital privacy and sets a terrible example for other countries like India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and others that are in the process of expanding their surveillance capabilities.

It also damages US credibility in advocating internationally for internet freedom, which the US has listed as an important foreign policy objective since at least 2010," the report said.

First Published: Jul 29, 2014 12:07 IST