UK: Whistleblowers and journalists face prison for revealing information that could be obtained under FOI

New proposals by the UK Law Commission to reform the 1989 Official Secrets Act (OSA) could lead to the imprisonment of civil servants and journalists for disclosing information that would be available to anyone asking for it under the Freedom of Information Act, say the Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFOI) and ARTICLE 19.


The Law Commission is proposing to make it easier to secure convictions under the 1989 OSA by weakening the test for proving an offence. But the proposed weaker test would catch information that would have to be disclosed under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, say the CFOI and ARTICLE 19.

In a joint response to the Law Commission proposals, ARTICLE 19 and the CFOI are concerned that:

  • Whistleblowers and journalists could be convicted for revealing information about defence, international relations or law enforcement that is unlikely to cause harm
  • Leaking information that anyone could obtain by making an FOI request could be an offence
  • It would not be a defence to show that the information had already lawfully been made public under the FOI Act or otherwise – unless the information had also been ‘widely disseminated’
  • Someone revealing danger to the public, abuse of power or serious misconduct would not be able to argue that they acted in the public interest
  • Maximum prison sentences on conviction, currently 2 years, would be increased.

CFOI director Maurice Frankel said: “These proposals are not only oppressive but unworkable. It is beyond common sense to make it an Official Secrets offence to leak information which anyone could obtain under FOI. The proposals would deter officials from discussing information that has lawfully been made public. It will set the FOI Act and the Official Secrets Act on a collision course. It is not the Law Commission’s job to make an ass of the law but that’s what its proposals would do.”

ARTICLE 19 Executive Director Thomas Hughes said: “In many countries in the world, secrecy laws are abused to imprison and harass journalists, whistleblowers and civil society, in particular in many Commonwealth countries where these laws are a legacy of British colonial control and oppression. If taken forward, the Commission’s proposals would move the clock backwards, undoing improvements in the UK’s 1989 Official Secrets Acts, and setting a dangerous example of eroding freedom of expression protections, which may be copied by oppressive regimes globally.”

The 1989 Official Secrets Act makes the leaking of information in certain areas, and the publication of those leaks, an offence.  Some offences are committed regardless of whether the information is shown to be harmful. Others require proof that a disclosure is ‘likely’ to damage defence, international relations, or law enforcement, or falls into a ‘class’ of information likely to damage the security services’ work.

The Law Commission says the ‘likely to damage’ test prevents prosecutions being brought, because proving this requires even more damaging information to be revealed in court. The CFOI and ARTICLE 19 point out that sensitive evidence can be given in camera during a trial of OSA offences and say the Commission has not explained why this very considerable safeguard is inadequate.

The Commission wants the harm test to be reduced from ‘likely’ to cause harm to ‘capable’ of causing harm, but the FOI Act only exempts information about defence, international relations and law enforcement if disclosure would be ‘likely’ to harm those interests.* Leaking information which is capable of but very unlikely to harm, say, law enforcement would therefore become an offence – although such information must be disclosed to anyone who asks for it under FOI.  An official would face the threat of imprisonment for making an unauthorised disclosure of information which anyone could obtain on request.

ARTICLE 19 and the CFOI are extremely concerned about the Law Commission’s proposals and the quality of the analysis which supports them. The proposals would substantially and unnecessarily extend the reach of the Official Secrets Act 1989, and threaten journalists and whistleblowers who release information about danger to the public, abuse of power or serious misconduct. The example this sets internationally is further cause for concern.

Hungarian journalist sentenced to probation for kicking fleeing refugees

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The Hungarian Journalist who was caught on camera in 2015 kicking and tripping over distraught refugees along the border with Serbia, has been sentenced to three years’ probation.

Hungarian media reported that a court in Szeged District found Petra Laszlo guilty of disorderly conduct following the hearing session, in which the defendant testified via video link.

Judge Illes Nanasi said Laszlo’s behavior “ran counter to societal norms,” adding that the facts of the case did not support the journalist’s claim that her aggressive actions were out of self defense.

The incident took place on September 8, 2015 near the Hungarian border town of Roszke, where Laszlo had gone to film violence-stricken asylum seekers from the Middle East trying to pass through the country on their way to Western Europe.

As she was filming, a number of refugees broke through a police cordon and inadvertently shoved her as they ran by.

Laszlo reacted by  kicking two of the refugees as they fled, including a young girl. She also tripped over a male refugee carrying a little child.

The footage went viral over the Internet, triggering widespread criticisms and condemnations from fellow journalists, human rights organizations and ordinary people.

Laszlo said she had been fired by her employer, the internet-based N1 TV, following the incident and the ensuing public outrage.

The camerawoman did not appear in court in person due to her lawyer’s claim that she had received death threats. At the trial session, she mounted a tearful defense, vowing to appeal the sentence.

“It is not a crime if somebody acts to defend herself … she was in danger, and she tried to avert this danger with her actions,” Laszlo’s attorney Ferenc Sipos said.

The court, however, issued the verdict after watching a frame-by-frame examination of her actions during the incident.

Nearly 400,000 refugees and asylum seekers passed through Hungary in 2015 for wealthier European Union states.

The flow, however, slowed dramatically after Prime Minister Viktor Orban ordered the installation of razor-wire fences built along Hungary’s southern border and beefed up laws to block illegal border crossings.

The Hungarian government has on numerous occasions been criticized by international rights groups for adopting tough measures in dealing with refugees.

In a report in September 2016, Amnesty International slammed Hungary for pushing back the refugees arriving in the country to Serbia or detaining in  them unlawfully  detention centers.

“Appalling treatment and labyrinthine asylum procedures are a cynical ploy to deter asylum-seekers from Hungary’s ever more militarized borders,” the report said.

Source : Press TV

Brazil: new report analyses impunity in crimes against communicators

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To mark the The International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists a new report published today looks in detail at twelve cases involving journalists murdered in Brazil between 2012-2014.

Cycle of Silence – impunity in murders of communicators in Brazil analyses thecontext of impunity in this type of crime in Brazil, and examines the main features of cases involving the murder of broadcasters, photo-journalists, bloggers and journalists.

For Paula Martins, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19 South America the lack of resolution in most murders contributes to a hostile environment for freedom of expression and the right to information for Brazilian society. “Impunity is a major reason for the cycle of violations against journalists to continue. In such a scenario, many communicators opt for self-censorship, meaning that information of public interest is not published. This affects the exercise of freedom of expression but also violates the right to information of the whole society.”

All twelve murders analysed in the report occurred as a result of exposure of information about irregularities made by a range of actors. The murders were committed by hit men, and in nine of the crimes, evidence suggests that the masterminds behind the murders were either politicians or policemen.

Impunity becomes obvious when it becomes clear that out of the twelve cases analysed only five cases resulted in the opening of a criminal case, or the indictment of suspects. In the remaining seven cases, the investigations were insufficient or inconclusive, and those responsible for the crimes remained unpunished.

Identification and accountability of the instigators of the crimes against journalists was also rare. In most cases when a criminal conviction was made it only concerned the hit-men who executed the crime.

The report also found that when civil society and media took steps to move a particular case towards a resolution progress on the cases was made. Equally the action of prosecutors and specialist homicide units within the police force was also crucial in making satisfactory progress of police investigations.

For Paula Martins, it is clear that the Brazilian State needs to go through a profound change in order to tackle the problem. “The study demonstrates the dual responsibility of the State in the continued replication of these violations. First, when its agents, as politicians and police, commit crimes; later, when the Justice agencies fail to hold them accountable and give an effective response to the victims’ families and to society.”

Source : Article 19

Journalist’s car sprayed with bullets

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BANGKOK: Unknown assailants sprayed a journalist’s Honda CRV with bullets yesterday morning while it was parked outside his home in Bangkok’s Thon Buri district.

Chatchai Suksomneuk, 56, whose beat covers the Royal Thai Police head office for Pim Thai newspaper and also for Japan’s NHK agency, was unharmed.

After learning of the shooting at 7am, Bukkhalo Police Station superintendent Pol Colonel Jinnawat Konthong inspected the car and found six bullet holes in the chassis and five in the windshield. Investigators also collected four slugs from the scene.

Chatchai told police that he had returned home on Monday evening from a funeral and only heard about the gunshots when a motorcycle taxi driver, who had come by to fix Chatchai’s bicycle, alerted him.

The journalist said it was clear his car had been targeted, although he added that he did not have disputes with anyone and his news reports were always based on facts. He added that most of his reports about the police bureau were positive and could not have been the cause of the attack.

Source : The Nation/Asia News Network

Journalists Arrested in Ferguson Settle with St. Louis County

Four reporters who were arrested in Ferguson, Miss., during the protests that followed the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown have reached a $75,000 settlement with St. Louis County.

The settlement, obtained by the Huffington Post, which also reported that the journalists—Ryan Devereaux, Lukas Hermsmeier, Ansgar Graw and Frank Herrmann—are barred from discussing its terms and conditions publicly.

According to the Huffington Post, the officers involved will undergo training sessions regarding “media access and the right to record police activity.”
Source : Daily Beast

Turkey is sending its journalists to prison

After forcing out his prime minister, President Erdogan muzzles the press

CAN DUNDAR saw the shooter approach and take aim at his legs. “He drew his gun, called me a traitor, and began firing,” he says, recalling the scene on May 6th outside an Istanbul courthouse, where he and a colleague have been standing trial. His wife grabbed the gunman, and Mr Dundar (pictured, right), one of Turkey’s best-known journalists, survived unscathed. Just hours later, he was sentenced to nearly six years in jail for publishing details of covert Turkish arms shipments to Syrian insurgents in Cumhuriyet, the newspaper where he served as editor-in-chief. The paper’s Ankara bureau chief, Erdem Gul (pictured, left), was sentenced to five years. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had called on the pair to “pay a heavy price” for revealing state secrets, has kept mum about the attack. Pro-government newspapers suggested it had been staged to attract sympathy for its target.

These are dark days for journalism in Turkey. The latest press freedom index by Reporters Without Borders puts the country in 151st place, between Tajikistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Censorship is the industry standard. News reports from the Kurdish southeast, where clashes between armed separatists and Turkish security forces have claimed more than a thousand lives since last summer, increasingly resemble army propaganda. The dead are referred to either as “martyrs” or “terrorists”; civilians, at least 250 of whom have been killed in the fighting, are seldom mentioned.
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Journalists are routinely sacked or dragged through the courts. In late April two columnists, also from Cumhuriyet, were given prison terms for republishing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. Mr Dundar blames Mr Erdogan and his government. “Most of our media [have] already surrendered,” he says. “Now they are trying to silence the rest.”

The departure of prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, hounded into resigning last week, and the pending appointment of a more pliant successor, will make that task easier. For over a year, Mr Erdogan has been pushing for constitutional changes that will give him sweeping new powers. He is now ratcheting up his campaign to transform Turkey’s system of government from a parliamentary to presidential one. “At this point,” he said in a speech on May 6th, “there is no turning back.”

To get those changes, he will need an early election, a referendum, or both. But it may no longer matter. With Mr Davutoglu out of the way, one of the last checks on Mr Erdogan’s power is gone. “This effectively marks the end of parliamentary democracy in Turkey,” says one political strategist. “Davutoglu may not have been a huge reformist, but the fact that he was in the system gave people some reassurance that things would not lead in the direction of one-man rule,” says Asli Aydintasbas of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank. That reassurance is now gone.

A deal that promised visa-free travel to the EU for Turkish citizens, in exchange for a range of reforms and a commitment to stem illegal migration to Europe, offered some hope of emboldening the reformists in the Turkish government. That deal is now hanging on by a thread.

Mr Erdogan seems more than happy to snap it. In his speech, the Turkish leader slammed Europe for asking Turkey to amend its laws against terrorism, which are increasingly used to prosecute Kurdish activists and other critics, including Mr Dundar. “The EU says: you will change the anti-terror law for visas,” he said. “Pardon me, but we are going our way and you can go yours.”
Source : The Economist

How The Secret Service Is Trying To Handcuff The Press

BY Lloyd Grove
The media fightback has begun after the Secret Service was given the power to run background checks on thousands of journalists who want to attend this summer’s Republican and Democratic Party nominating conventions.

The United States Secret Service—the agency that protects the president, foreign dignitaries, and various government officials, among other critical duties—has assumed an expanded new power that has Washington journalists up in arms.

The law enforcement agency—whose once-pristine reputation has been tarnished in recent years by scandal, congressional investigations and, more to the point, aggressive investigative reporting—is for the first time ever running background checks on thousands of journalists who want to attend this summer’s Republican and Democratic Party nominating conventions.

Journalists who don’t pass muster—in what several complain is an inscrutable security screening process for which there are no plainly established criteria, and from which there is no appeal—will be denied credentials to cover the GOP’s July 18-21 conclave in Cleveland, at which reality show billionaire Donald Trump is expected to be nominated, and the Democrats’ July 25-28 meeting in Philadelphia, at which former New York senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton will likely be named the standard-bearer.

“I personally think it’s the government deciding who can and can’t be a journalist, and I don’t think the First Amendment allows that,” said Newark Star-Ledger Washington correspondent Jonathan D. Salant, a member and former chairman of the Standing Committee of Correspondents, the organization which represents the interests of the four media galleries on Capitol Hill (daily press, periodical press, photographers and broadcasters) and has run the credentialing process for political conventions—without Secret Service interference—since 1912.

The Secret Service—which referred The Daily Beast to its FAQ page and an April story in Politico—argues that Salant’s objection reflects a misunderstanding of the agency’s role, which isn’t to determine who is or isn’t a journalist, but simply to vet individuals whose names have been submitted by journalistic outlets in accordance with ground rules set by convention organizers and the media galleries.

In addition, the Secret Service says it isn’t singling out journalists for special scrutiny—never mind that these background checks apparently won’t be conducted on thousands of delegates and guests; members of convention host committees, vendors, volunteers and others must also be vetted for credentials to attend what the agency has designated a “National Special Security Event,” especially if they want to operate in what the agency identifies as “secure areas” of the convention halls, such as the podium and backstage holding rooms.

Directors of the various congressional media galleries—whose professional staffers are nonpartisan and paid by the Speaker of the House or the Senate Rules Committee, depending on which side of the Capitol they service—have met twice with Secret Service officials, who were initially resistant to the idea of meeting face-to-face to explain the intricacies of the new policy, according to a well-placed congressional source, and have informed gallery staffers that a requested third meeting will not take place.

“Their attitude was, ‘We have our marching orders, and this is the way it’s going to be,’” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

When the media galleries first reached out to the Secret Service, “the agency didn’t care who they were,” asking disrespectfully of the gallery staff, “Who the hell are you?”

The source added, “They [the Secret Service] were complete blockheads about it.”

The Secret Service eventually agreed to sit down with the gallery directors in February, and in the second session at the Capitol brought along a top official of the Ardian Group—the Pennsylvania-based private contractor to whom the government agency is outsourcing the job of vetting an estimated 15,000 journalists who have applied for credentials to report in the convention halls and work out of media filing centers in Cleveland and Philadelphia.

In that meeting, Ardian executive Heidi Talalay expressed confidence in the company’s ability to handle the labor-intensive assignment, and pointed out that a previous Ardian job—vetting journalists for credentials to cover Pope Francis’s September 2015 visit to the United States—went smoothly, an assertion that contradicted numerous complaints at the time about a process that struck many journalists as confusing and frustrating.

“I don’t think they know what they’re in for,” said a participant in the meeting, who was skeptical of Talalay’s rosy predictions about performing background checks for the conventions, contrary to the Secret Service’s impression that people at the meeting breathed sighs of relief after hearing an explanation of Ardian’s process.

Talalay didn’t respond to a voice mail message left by The Daily Beast.

In a widely distributed “Dear Colleagues” letter, John Stanton, Washington bureau chief of BuzzFeed, wrote that the Secret Service’s new “process raises some troubling questions. What would disqualify a reporter from covering a convention? The lack of transparency leaves open the possibility of abuse. Over the last two years, for instance, several of our colleagues have been arrested while covering protests—would those arrests disqualify them? Could something like political activity in college disqualify a reporter? Without explanation or recourse, how would a reporter or an outlet even know what had prevented their credentialing?”

Stanton added: “More broadly, there are significant questions about the Secret Service being involved in this process at all, especially this year. There has already been at least one documented instance of a physical altercation between a Secret Service agent and a fellow journalist”—a reference to a February incident at a Trump rally in which an agent tackled and choked Time magazine photographer Chris Morris after the latter cursed and kicked at him.

“Additionally, multiple reporters from many of your own outlets have informed me that agents have begun enforcing press ‘pen’ rules at campaign stops and limiting the free movement of journalists, at the behest of Donald Trump’s campaign.

“Given that dynamic, why should the Secret Service have jurisdiction over the 1st Amendment for the Republican and Democratic conventions?”

Salant, for his part, told The Daily Beast that three months of constructive engagement and quiet diplomacy with the agency have yielded zero accommodations from the Secret Service, which is premising its unprecedented credentialing authority on a 2013 Obama administration national security directive—Presidential Policy Directive 22—whose language is classified and thus not publicly available.

Needless to say, it is extremely unusual, at least in the American context, for a government agency to formulate a policy regarding the news media, based on the possibly tendentious interpretation of a secret directive that, because the content and purpose of the directive are a mystery, is not open for discussion. An official listing of President Obama’s directives mentions the existence of PPD 22 but otherwise offers no explanation, leaving the line blank. (An anonymous law enforcement official told Politico that the directive gives the Secret Service to power of enforcing “access control.”)

This is yet another irony for a president who regularly touts his administration’s alleged “transparency” and, as recently as his remarks during last Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, frequently lauds the role of the Fourth Estate in demanding government accountability.

Salant said he hopes that in a meeting of the Standing Committee scheduled for next Tuesday, he and his fellow committee members vote to go public with objections that they have already expressed privately in a Jan. 29 letter to Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy.

“We believe this effort is an unprecedented, discriminatory move that, in the name of security, unfairly singles out members of the media who are simply exercising their First Amendment right to cover a nationally significant news event,” reads the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Daily Beast.

“As we understand it, this intrusive vetting process will not be imposed on delegates, alternates and invited guests to the conventions—all of whom will be accessing the same areas in the convention hall as the news media,” the letter continues. “We find it perplexing that subjecting only the news media to a higher level of scrutiny would ensure a secure convention, while thousands of other attendees go unchecked and unverified.”

The letter adds: “We wish to point out that the additional level of scrutiny will prevent news organizations from adding reporters at the last minute to respond to breaking news, such as the selection of a vice presidential running mate since those reporters may not have yet been assigned to cover that story and therefore not undergone the required background check.

“We see the press’s role in covering the national political parties as an integral part of democracy that was founded on the idea of freedom of the press.

“Our long-established press credentialing system through the Standing Committee, which is empowered by Congress, has functioned extraordinarily well for over a century. We truly believe it imprudent to change it now, especially at this late date in the convention cycle.”

The White House Correspondents Association—which has no responsibility for convention credentialing—raised the issue in a meeting between association’s board members and the Secret Service, but so far has not taken a public position on the issue.

Standing Committee Chairman Matthew Daly, a congressional correspondent for the Associated Press, said that journalists in the end will have no choice but to follow the Secret Service’s procedures, and isn’t sure that public hostilities with the agency will improve the situation.

“They already know we’re unhappy,” Daly said. “What’s that old country saying about being kicked in the head by the mule the third time?”

Daly pointed out that the Standing Committee has already lost a different battle—that is, for the Republicans to rescind a $150 charge to news organizations for each seat on the press stand in the convention hall—an “access fee to cover the news,” as Daly calls it, that the Democrats are not imposing, at least not this time around.

Meanwhile, Daly said there seemed to be little support for an idea advanced by Ryan Grim, Washington bureau chief of the Huffington Post, for news organizations to protest the Secret Service’s credential vetting process simply by boycotting it.

“I floated the idea that we just collectively tell them we’re not going to participate in their background checks, maybe by not providing Social Security numbers,” Grim told The Daily Beast, adding that if the 20 top news outlets threw down the gauntlet, it would definitely get attention from the powers that be. “If we didn’t participate, it would be leaving them with the choice of not credentialing us. It would be a game of chicken at that point.”

While conceding that his idea is probably quixotic, Grim said a direct appeal to the Secretary of Homeland Security, who oversees the Secret Service, might be more effective—especially if the pitch is made by a journalist over drinks at one of the frequent Washington gatherings that the extremely sociable Cabinet secretary enjoys attending.

“I think the ace in the hole here is Jeh Johnson,” Grim said, apparently tongue in cheek. “He hasn’t skipped a dinner party since he became secretary, and he doesn’t want to be on Dana Bash’s bad side.”

More than 20 months after Ferguson, Ryan Reilly and Wesley Lowery are still facing charges in St. Louis County

By Jonathan Peters, CJR

The 2014 arrests of journalists Ryan Reilly and Wesley Lowery for, well, doing journalism at a McDonald’s in Ferguson, Missouri, were misguided. The filing of charges by St. Louis County against them nearly a year later, just days before the statute of limitations tolled, was absurd.

Over the past eight months, the charges—one count each of trespassing and interfering with a police officer against Reilly, of The Huffington Post, and Lowery, of The Washington Post, which this week won a Pulitzer Prize for a project on fatal police shootings that grew in part out of events in Ferguson—have been the subject of numerous legal proceedings in Missouri courts. And somewhere along the way, the case has become not just disappointing but dumbfounding, a remarkable low point for government harassment of the press.

The basic story is by now pretty familiar, but here is how The Washington Post editorial board summarized the events surrounding the arrests:

Journalists had been using a Ferguson McDonald’s as a staging ground to cover unrest after the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by white police Officer Darren Wilson. Asked by officers to leave the restaurant, Mr. Lowery and Mr. Reilly apparently didn’t leave quickly enough for the police. Mr. Lowery, for one, started recording a video on his phone while he packed up, which obviously riled an officer who improperly ordered him to stop recording. On the video, the officer walks toward the exit with Mr. Lowery while the Post reporter asks legitimate questions and tries to record the interactions other officers are having with Mr. Reilly, who is not quite done packing up.

Next, there is confusion about which door Mr. Lowery is supposed to use to exit, during which he asks if he can just adjust his backpack, which, Mr. Lowery later explained, was slipping off his shoulder. At that point one of the officers says, “Let’s take him.” According to an account Mr. Lowery wrote after his arrest, the officers slammed him into a soda machine, handcuffed him and led him and Mr. Reilly to a police van. The officers refused to tell Mr. Lowery or Mr. Reilly their names.

When the charges were filed last August, I argued that the arrests “seem to have been deliberate and unjustifiable attempts to interfere with the press, and [that] the charges, perversely, memorialize and magnify that interference.” I was hardly alone. Prosecutors should not have brought the charges.

But they did, and the last eight months have seen extensive litigation between St. Louis County and the journalists.

In October, Reilly and Lowery filed motions to dismiss the charges for lack of jurisdiction in the St. Louis County Municipal Court, arguing that their arrests were based on alleged conduct that occurred in an incorporated area of the county and that the charges arose under ordinances that apply only in unincorporated areas.

In response, the county conceded that it lacked the authority to charge Reilly and Lowery for alleged violations in the City of Ferguson. But the county went on to say that its lack of authority was “irrelevant,” because the county has “emergency powers” allowing it to charge people even when the municipal court lacks jurisdiction. In January, the presiding judge, Craig Concannon, denied the journalists’ motions in a one-paragraph order, writing that they were denied “for the reasons outlined in” the county’s brief.

Concannon, who happens to be a campaign donor to the county executive, did something else worth mentioning, too: He refused to allow Reilly and Lowery to depose the officers who arrested them. The journalists had asked to depose six officers listed as government witnesses, and the county had agreed to four.

The judge, however, ruled that because the matter was in municipal rather than state court, depositions were at his discretion—and he denied the journalists’ requests. That’s unusual for two reasons. First, in Missouri, criminal defendants are generally allowed, as a practical matter, to depose government witnesses regardless of court type. Second, judges don’t normally give less than the government offers.

At any rate, a few weeks ago Reilly and Lowery filed separate writs in the St. Louis County Circuit Court to challenge Concannon’s rulings, arguing that he abused his discretion by allowing the prosecutions to proceed. They also argue that the county’s invocation of “emergency powers” is not effective because neither the county nor the city had declared a state of emergency at the time Reilly and Lowery were arrested. If the writs are granted, Concannon would be required to dismiss the charges.

Gabriel Gore, of the St. Louis firm Dowd Bennett and a member of the Ferguson Commission, which ended in December, represents Reilly and Lowery. “We think the law is clear,” he said, “and we hope that the court will agree.” When I asked whether he was surprised that the cases are still ongoing, Gore said in jest, “I’m always surprised when a court disagrees with my clients’ position when my clients have the law on their side.”

Gore demurred when asked whether Reilly and Lowery planned to file an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which allows individuals to sue government officials for depriving them of constitutional or civil rights. He said that until such a claim were filed, it would be a matter of attorney-client privilege—and that currently there’s no such claim pending. (Last year, the county settled a § 1983 suit brought by a journalist in connection with his arrest in a separate incident.)

St. Louis County Counselor Peter Krane, who has previously defended the decision to bring charges, did not respond to a request for comment.

So what happens next? The county has roughly three weeks left to reply to the writs. A ruling will follow. And then, perhaps, we’ll know whether St. Louis County can retreat from this low point—or whether local officials will continue to sink into the mud.

Source : CJR Editors

How a Simple Request Got Me Blacklisted by the Pentagon

Nick Turse

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The Department of Defense has a lot of problems — a series of wars in Iraq that never seem to fully end, a conflict in Afghanistan that just won’t end, quasi-wars in Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia with no end in sight; a proliferation of terror groups around the globe; and its numerous failed, failing, and scuttled training efforts to create local proxy armies.

And then there’s me.

Last week, the Department of Defense issued its annual “Chief Freedom of Information Act Officer Report to the Department of Justice.” At a cost of roughly $41,449, this study, according to the Defense Department’s Chief FOIA Officer, Peter Levine, found that “DoD has continued to improve its administration of the FOIA and develop new initiatives to further streamline our FOIA processes and promote openness and transparency.” Never mind that, at this very moment, the Defense Department is seeking to add exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act that would allow it to deny requests for unclassified materials pertaining to military operations. The report suggests that sunshine is abundant at the Pentagon — even if there are some conspicuous traces of gloom beyond their control.

The report, for instance, laments that “despite their best efforts to provide helpful details, great customer service and efficient responses,” some DoD components were “still overwhelmed by one or two requesters who try to monopolize the system by filing a large number of requests or submitting disparate requests in groups which require a great deal of administrative time to adjudicate.” The study went on to call out:

one particular requester [who] singlehandedly filed three requests with SOUTHCOM [U.S. Southern Command], 53 requests with AFRICOM, 35 requests with SOCOM [Special Operations Command] and 217 requests with OSD/JS [Office of the Secretary of Defense/ Joint Staff] for a total of 308 cases this fiscal year alone. For AFRICOM, this represents 43% of their entire incoming requests for the year and 12% for SOCOM. This requester holds over 13% of the currently open and pending requests with OSD/JS and over the past two years has filed 415 initial requests and 54 appeals with this one component.

Who would do such a thing? What type of monster files this many requests?

That would be me.

The chief FOIA officer’s report seems to suggest intent, that I file FOIA requests in an attempt to “monopolize the system.” That’s presumably the reason that I’m responsible for 43 percent of AFRICOM’s FOIA requests.

Of course, Levine — who also serves as the DoD’s Deputy Chief Management Officer — never asked me my reasons. If he had, I would have offered a different explanation, one that begins back in July 2012 with my request to Colonel Tom Davis, director of U.S. Africa Command’s Office of Public Affairs, for some basic information about what AFRICOM calls “temporary facilities” — what you and I might refer to as American bases on the African continent.Colonel Davis turned out to be on leave at that moment, but AFRICOM spokesman Eric Elliott emailed the next month to say: “Let me see what I can give you in response to your request for a complete list of facilities.  There will [be] some limits on the details we can provide because of the scope of the request.”

That, it turns out, was an understatement.

For weeks, I heard nothing. A follow-up email in late October went unanswered.  A message in early November finally elicited a reply by another AFRICOM spokesman, Lieutenant Commander Dave Hecht, who said he was now handling the matter and would provide an update by the end of the week.  He didn’t. I sent another email.  On November 16th, Hecht finally responded:  “All questions now have answers. I just need the boss to review before I can release. I hope to have them to you by mid next week.” Did he? Nope. Further emails went unanswered. It was December before Hecht replied:  “All questions have been answered but are still being reviewed for release. Hopefully this week I can send everything your way.”

Guess what? He didn’t.

In January 2013, I received answers to some other questions of mine, but nothing in regard to U.S. bases. By now, Hecht had also vanished and I was handed off to AFRICOM’s then-chief of media engagement, Benjamin Benson.  When I asked about the ignored questions, he responded that my request “exceed[ed] the scope of this command’s activities, and of what we are resourced to research and provide under the Public Affairs program.” He suggested that I instead file a Freedom of Information Act request. That is, after six months of waiting for some very basic information and being led to believe something along those lines would be provided, he recommended I begin a new endlessly drawn-out process. I dutifully did. This January, I finally received a partial response to that FOIA request. After three and a half years of waiting for this information, I received one page of unclassified but still partially redacted (not to mention relatively useless) material about the only officially acknowledged U.S. base in Africa.

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Illustration: Matt Bors

If you can believe it, that six-month span in 2012 and 2013 may represent the highpoint of my relationship with AFRICOM. They at least returned my emails and phone calls, if not always in a timely manner. At some point afterward, they mostly stopped picking up the phone. I made, for instance, a couple hundred attempts to contact the command for information, comment, and clarification while working on an article about criminal acts and untoward behavior by U.S. troops in Africa — sexual assaults, the shooting of an officer by an enlisted man, drug use, sex with prostitutes, a bar crawl that ended in six deaths. Dozens of phone calls to public affairs personnel went unanswered, countless email requests were ignored. At one point, I called Benson, the AFRICOM media chief, 32 times on a single business day from a phone line that identified me by name. He never picked up. I then placed a call from another number so that my identity would be concealed. He answered on the second ring. Once I identified myself, he claimed the connection was bad and the line went dead.With that kind of “assistance” from AFRICOM, I had to write almost that entire piece from — you guessed it — documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. In fact, it took dozens of requests and more than a year’s worth of effort to obtain the documents for that single article. Of course, investigations like that didn’t win me any friends at AFRICOM.

Today, when I write to the current AFRICOM public affairs chief, Lieutenant Commander Anthony Falvo, I receive similar treatment. I often get a return receipt back that tells me my email to him “was deleted without being read.” This happened to me, for example, on Thursday, September 10, 2015; Friday, October 02, 2015, Tuesday, October 06, 2015; Thursday, November 05, 2015; Friday, November 27, 2015; Wednesday, February 10, 2016… you get the picture. When I wrote a piece on a shadowy African drone base for The Intercept, not only did AFRICOM refuse to respond to me about it, they refused to even respond to a Pentagon press officer who passed along to them my requests for comment.

All this is to say that, there’s a reason why I file so many FOIA requests with AFRICOM and it has nothing to do with a diabolical dream of “monopoliz[ing] the system.” It instead has to do with AFRICOM’s press office not only withholding basic information, but refusing to respond to my requests. (Or even the Pentagon’s!)

Lest I give the false impression that AFRICOM is some outlier in an otherwise open and transparent Defense Department, let me offer another example of the Pentagon’s stranglehold on information and the need to file many FOIA requests. In his preamble to the 2016 DoD FOIA report, Levine boasted that a “continued commitment to the principles of openness was showcased” by the fact that “over 91% of all received requests were processed in less than 100 days.” Elsewhere the report says “the vast majority of requesters are seeing their cases resolved in less than 20 days.”

Let’s just say this often hasn’t been my experience.

On the very day I first read the 2016 FOIA report, I opened a freshly delivered envelope from the Defense Department’s Inspector General. It contained 16 pages of documents, some so heavily redacted that little of substance remained. I couldn’t actually recall filing a FOIA request for the IG report, so I took a look at the cover letter and realized the reason why. It read: “Dear Mr. Turse, This is a response to your October 6, 2011 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request…” It had been more than four years since I sought the documents. I guess it’s a good thing I had other FOIA requests in the pipeline and wasn’t waiting on that one report for a story.I should offer a caveat when it comes to my identity as the “one particular requester” singled out in the DoD’s 2016 report. I can’t be absolutely sure it’s me. Vice’s Jason Leopold thinks so, and given his expertise on anything related to the Freedom of Information Act — a government official has described Leopold as a “FOIA terrorist” — I wouldn’t doubt him on anything related to the subject. But, I’m really only 99.8 percent sure.

To be absolutely certain, I tried to ask Peter Levine. I was hoping he would confirm and maybe answer a couple more questions about the report. I went to the website of the DoD’s Office of the Deputy Chief Management Officer and found that it says “members of the press/media should directly contact the Department of Defense Press Operations Center.” So I called there asking for Levine’s number. The press officer instead said he would connect me with a colleague best suited to field my request. Unfortunately, that gentleman wasn’t in. In his absence, it was recommended that I contact Lieutenant Colonel Eric Badger (I kid you not). I left a message and never heard back from him before I filed this piece. I guess that means I’m left with only one option. It’s time for this “one particular requester” to file another FOIA request.

Source : EIN News

What journalists can learn from Michael Feeney

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By Carlett Spike

A January post on journalist Michael Feeney’s Facebook page alerted friends and relatives that he had died at 32. The news quickly spread, leading to coverage by CNN, Fox News, and the New York Amsterdam News, a Harlem-based newspaper that focuses on the black community.

By the next day, the news was trending on Facebook. Al Sharpton, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, and President Barack Obama sent their condolences. “May cherished memories of your time together help temper your grief, and may you find comfort in the support of loved ones,” Obama wrote in a letter to Feeney’s mother (Feeney had covered the president for NBCBLK). “Please know you are in my thoughts.” Two funerals for Feeney drew more than 1,500 mourners, 4,000 livestream viewers, and $27,000 in donations to cover funeral costs and to create a scholarship fund at his alma mater, Delaware State University.
Feeney died of a staph infection he’d contracted while being treated for kidney disease at Holy Name Medical Center in his hometown of Teaneck, New Jersey. As a boy, he used to help a friend of his mother’s deliver newspapers. He was noticeably outgoing, and looked up to Fox News reporter Bob O’Brien and WWOR-TV anchor Reggie Harris, whose children were among his high school classmates. But it wasn’t until he won a scholarship award in high school for his writing that it became evident that he was serious about pursuing journalism, says his mother, Reba Willis.

At Delaware State, Feeney joined the student newspaper staff during his freshman year. By the time he was a senior, he was editor in chief. In 2005, after graduation, he interned with the Associated Press in Baltimore. From there, his career took off. Feeney went on to work at the Associated Press in Detroit, The (Bergen) Record, and the New York Daily News, where he covered upper Manhattan. He also freelanced for Ebony, NBCBLK, and the Grio. In 2010, he won the National Association of Black Journalists’ Emerging Journalist Award, given to an outstanding young journalist dedicated to fair and equal coverage of the black community.

Why was Feeney so widely and deeply mourned? Personal branding and self-promotion are common in today’s journalism landscape, and Feeney certainly made himself and his work known to those who mattered in the field. But he had other priorities. “I think it’s not enough to just help ourselves, we have to help others,” he said when he won the NABJ award. “I feel like it’s my duty to help young journalists because I know there were people who helped and encouraged me.”

Here are five lessons we can learn from Feeney.

 

Set a goal, and achieve it

In high school, Feeney made up his mind that he wanted to be a journalist—and he never changed it. Willis would often caution her son to make backup plans, but he would brush her off and assure her that he was confident about his decision.

While at the Daily News, his beat included Harlem, but his interest in entertainment was never far behind. Freelance assignments allowed him to write about hip-hop icons like Jay Z and Fetty Wap. Additionally, Feeney kept a blog where he would write short entertainment news articles that showed off his humor, his opinions, and his interest in entertainers.

In 2013, he wrote a blog post about singer Lauryn Hill, whose recent work Feeney called a “monstrosity.” “We can all affirmatively say she hasn’t been the same since the success of the Miseducation album … . The last thing we need is another tragedy like Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston. We need to start supporting our black heroes when they are in trouble instead of making them go even more nuts!”

Once Feeney set a goal, he would work tirelessly to achieve it, says Sonya Ross, race and ethnicity editor at the Associated Press, who worked with Feeney. Weeks before he died, Feeney had landed his dream job covering entertainment for CNN in Atlanta.

“He embodied everything that young journalists should be doing and seeking in terms of their career,” says Sarah Glover, president of the National Association of Black Journalists. “To be tenacious, to be persistent, to be focused, to be disciplined—those are all qualities that he had and he lived, and that’s what we need in our young journalists today.”

 

When life gives you lemons …

Feeney brought a level of excitement to the job that few others could match, says Christina Joseph Robinson, assignment editor at The Record. He was one of the first reporters on the paper’s staff to shoot his own photos and record video to accompany his articles.

Feeney is remembered by many for his positive attitude and warming smile, even when his circumstances were hard. Robinson recalls the time Feeney was sent to cover a fire in Teaneck on the day before Thanksgiving in 2008. He thought the fire just happened to be on his block, but once he arrived at the scene, he discovered it was his house burning. Smoke had clouded many rooms, blackening the stove and kitchen walls. “My 13-year-old cat, Freddi, was carried out by firefighters in the comforter where she slept,” Feeney wrote in the Daily News a year later. “She didn’t survive. It was the most helpless I had ever felt. I couldn’t stop the tears from trickling down my face.”

The house was unlivable, and his family’s belongings were destroyed, but no one was hurt. The family lived in hotels and temporary housing for the next year while their home was under construction. “Everybody was like, What do you need? And he was like, I’m just so happy that my family is okay and we’re going to be okay,” says Robinson.

Feeney echoed that sentiment in the Daily News piece: “Whether you’re spending this Thanksgiving eating turkey or taking in the parade, stop a moment to be truly thankful for everything you have.”

 

Lack of diversity in newsrooms is still a problem

Feeney worked at the Daily News from 2009 to 2014, when he was laid off in a series of staff cuts. There weren’t many minority reporters in the newsroom to begin with, and even fewer after the cuts. Feeney did not go silently. “I’m really disappointed that the New York Daily News continues [to] find ways to decrease the number of black journalists that work for the paper, especially in a city where blacks make up a quarter of the population,” he said. “From the death of Eric Garner to the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, it is important, now more than ever, that our newsrooms reflect the diversity of our communities. They have to do better.”

As two-term president of the New York Association of Black Journalists until last year, Feeney’s main goal was to help his fellow black journalists maneuver through the industry. He started a “Chat and Chew” lecture series to create a space for black journalists to come together and connect. Chapter meetings were held at various news organizations to give members more insight into the industry. “We wanted to show people this is what The New York Times looks like if you are interested in working here,” says Josh Barker, a reporter for the New York Amsterdam News who was vice president of NYABJ at the time.

Feeney’s initiatives, like membership drives and open networking to place black journalists in jobs, are credited with winning NYABJ the Chapter of the Year award in 2013. “He had so much promise in his career and he had so much promise within NABJ,” says Glover, the NABJ president and social media editor for NBC Owned Television Stations. “I personally believe he would have been NABJ president one day soon.”

 

You get what you give

In 2011, a college friend and fraternity brother of Feeney’s named Deon Hampton called Feeney for help finding a job. In less than two weeks, he said at Feeney’s funeral, his friend had secured Hampton an interview at The Record. Hampton ended up getting a job as a staff writer. He currently works for Newsday.

“He not only sought out the best for himself in terms of internship opportunities and employment opportunities, but he always shared his knowledge with others,” says Glover. “You could see firsthand he was very passionate about ensuring other young journalists also had the same opportunities he had, and [the] exposure he had.”

This was especially striking given Feeney’s age. “At 32 years old, you don’t know everything,” says Jay Levin, a reporter for The Record. “But here he was in a position where he was still learning, but he’s imparting what he knows.”

Feeney was especially helpful to students. He had served as an advisor for the student paper at William Paterson University and regularly returned to Delaware State to speak to students about opportunities in journalism, and to share his personal story. In 2014, he gave the keynote address at Delaware State’s convocation. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from or where you’re raised, you still have an opportunity to make your mark on the world,” Feeney said in a university video.

Feeney also helped bring speakers to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and spoke at a recent Columbia Journalism School Association of Black Journalists (CJABJ) event, titled A Discussion on Race in The Media. “He was very helpful answering questions that the students had, advising them on how they can move forward in their careers as journalists of color, and how to use your race to make you basically a better hire—someone who can diversify the opinions and the culture of the newsroom,” says Cydney Tucker, a Columbia Journalism student and president of CJABJ.

Michael Feeney poses for a photo along with other speakers after a CJABJ event called A Discussion on Race in The Media.

Feeney’s mother was as surprised as anyone by the avalanche of condolence calls and cards she received when her son died. “He did these things that I was not even aware of,” she says.

 

Connections, connections

Feeney knew practically everyone. “Every time he had to get a new phone, they’d be like, Oh, we can’t transfer all these numbers,” his mother recalls with a chuckle.

Once he won the NABJ Emerging Journalist Award, he was on a lot of people’s radar within the industry. His mentors, Sarah Glover of NABJ and Sonya Ross of the AP, agree that Feeney knew how to make connections with the right people. But Feeney wasn’t just an expert networker. He stayed in touch, a habit that served him well. For Glover, the fact that Feeney kept in touch after they met transformed their relationship from one between a mentor and mentee to a real friendship.

In the weeks before he died, Feeney reached out to many friends and acquaintances to tell them about his new job at CNN. He checked in with some while he was in the hospital, as well.

At Feeney’s funeral, Josh Barker of the Amsterdam News remembers people asking why President Obama wrote a letter to Feeney’s family. While he says people didn’t say it outright, the questioning was in the vein of How could I get the same type of response?

Feeney’s selflessness and concern for others should inspire all journalists, for their own betterment and that of the industry.

Source : CJR Editors