Freedom of Expression

Press Release R36/13







Washington D.C., May 15, 2013 – The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its concern that the United States Department of Justice has requested the telephone records of journalists from the news agency The Associated Press (AP) from the telephone companies concerned. This type of practice could affect the free exercise of journalism by putting the confidentiality of journalistic sources at risk.


According to the information received, on May 10, 2013, the AP received a letter from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, which informed it that the Department of Justice had obtained the telephone records of more than 20 phone lines used by the agency’s editors and journalists in April and May of 2012. The records included telephone calls made from the AP offices as well as from the private telephones lines of various staff members. The acts of surveillance purportedly occurred without prior notice to the news agency or its journalists.


On Monday, May 13, the President and CEO of the AP, Gary B. Pruitt, sent a letter of protest to Attorney General Eric Holder, in which he objects "in the strongest possible terms to a massive and unprecedented intrusion by the Department of Justice into the newsgathering activities of The Associated Press." In the letter, the President of the agency expressed that "[t]hese records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations, and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know."


Deputy Attorney General, James Cole, said in a response letter to the AP, that the Department of Justice strives "in every case to strike the proper balance between the public’s interest in the free flow of information and the public’s interest in the protection of national security and effective enforcement of our criminal laws." Attorney General Eric Holder said at a press conference on Tuesday, May 14, that the actions were taken in the context of a "very serious leak" that "put the American people at risk," and therefore "trying to determine who was responsible for that I think required very aggressive action."


In a press conference on Monday, May 13, the White House Press Secretary, Jay Carney, said the White House had no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone records of the AP. "The president believes that the press as a rule needs to have an unfettered ability to pursue investigative journalism." He added that the president also considers that it cannot be allowed that "classified information, that can do harm to our national security interests or do harm to individuals, to be leaked."


The Office of the Special Rapporteur notes with concern that this type of practice can harm the free exercise of journalism and affect the right of journalists to keep the identity of their sources confidential, as reflected in Principle 8 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression of the IACHR: "Every social communicator has the right to keep his/her source of information, notes, personal and professional archives confidential."


As the Office of the Special Rapporteur has indicated on other occasions, the importance of the right to the confidentiality of sources lies in the fact that in the context of their work and in order to provide the public with the information necessary to satisfy the right to receive information, journalists perform an important service to the public when they collect and publish information that would not otherwise come to light if the confidentiality of their sources were not protected. Thus, confidentiality is an essential element of journalists’ work and of the role that they play in society of reporting about matters of public interest.


As a result, when it is completely necessary for the State to carry out this type of action, it is not sufficient to comply with ordinary guarantees of due process. Those who are involved must be notified so that reporters are forewarned about the actions that are being carried out, permitting them to protect their sources of information.


The Office of the Special Rapporteur reminds the State of the need to adopt all necessary measures to avoid putting this fundamental guarantee for the free exercise of journalism at risk.


The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression was created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to encourage the defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression in the hemisphere, given the fundamental role this right plays in consolidating and developing the democratic system.