U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland ruled Monday (19) that federal prosecutors were prohibited from using warrants or subpoenas to identify journalists’ sources. The move comes after it was revealed that Donald Trump’s Justice Department had secretly accessed reporters’ phone records.
The new rule also applies to the disclosure of confidential information, Garland said, a major change demanded for years by press freedom associations. Prosecutors can, however, continue to use their legal arsenal against those suspected of being the source of the leaks, but with exceptions.
According to the determination of the Minister of Justice, there are some exceptions, if the journalist is suspected of having committed an illegal act, for example, by abusing inside information; for using a prohibited method, such as breaking into protected systems; or if it is to prevent a serious act (kidnapping, attack, etc.) from being committed.
To ensure the measure is not easily changed during a change of government, Garland has called for a review of all rules relating to journalists in order to draft a law that will be presented to the US Congress.
American journalists’ associations welcomed the announcement. It is “a necessary and important measure to protect press freedom during a critical time,” said the Committee of Reporters for Press Freedom.
“This historic new policy will allow journalists to do their job of informing the public without fear of interference from the federal government in the treatment of their sources,” added the association.
The move follows the revelation this year by Joe Biden’s management of a series of cases in which the previous administration has been granted secret access to journalists’ communication files in an attempt to uncover their sources.
The telephone records of journalists working for the Washington Post and the New York Times were consulted, as well as the telephone and electronic records of a reporter for the American channel CNN. When the cases came to light, Biden said he would not let the Justice Department under his administration take the step, which he called “just plain bogus.”
In the United States, leaking confidential information is illegal under the Espionage Act of 1917. Until now, federal prosecutors could issue warrants, including against telephone companies or technology companies, to trace the crime. source of the leaks or even indict and arrest journalists to identify their perpetrators.
The Republican and Democratic administrations have issued subpoenas against journalists in the past. The most emblematic case is that of journalist Judith Miller who, in 2005, spent nearly three months in prison for not having wanted to reveal her sources, in a case of disclosure of the identity of a CIA police officer. .
After a scandal in 2013, the Barack Obama administration created new rules and imposed the need for authorization by senior Justice Department officials for any warrant against journalists, without giving up the practice altogether.
Upon arriving at the White House in 2017, Trump stepped up efforts to punish those responsible for the leaks, whom he called traitors. In 2018, the court confiscated electronic correspondence between a New York Times reporter and a former head of the Senate Intelligence Committee with whom she had a relationship and who had given her confidential information.