Keep the press free

Rewon Shimray | Cartoonist

There’s a reason the Founding Fathers included “freedom of the press” in the very First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and it wasn’t just for sentence fluency. These five rights guaranteed to Americans –– freedom of religion, petition, assembly, speech and press –– are the foundation of our country’s governing document.

Why, then, is the Department of Homeland Security compiling a database of “any and all media coverage” as a part of its “media monitoring” plan? This database goes directly against the rights expressed in the First Amendment, especially in today’s digitally-based society, where anyone with a smartphone and a voice can consider themselves a “member of the media.”

Forbes reports that the Department of Homeland Security has said the National Protection and Programs Directorate/Office of the Under Secretary “has a critical need to incorporate these functions into their programs in order to better reach federal, state, local, tribal and private partners,” and that the Directorate’s mission is “to protect and enhance the resilience of the nation’s physical and cyber infrastructure.”

These explanations sound like they could be one of two things. On the one hand, Forbes outlines that the Department could be responding to the accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

This would seemingly make sense, with the Directorate’s focus on “protecting the nation’s cyber infrastructure,” but with the increasing rise of “fake news” threats, is this really the motive? We don’t think so.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, through this database, it would have “the ability to monitor up to 290,000 global news sources; ability to track media coverage in up to 100 languages and the ability to ‘track online, print, broadcast, cable, radio, trade and industry publications, local sources, national/international outlets, traditional news sources and social media.'”

Journalists of all countries have reacted on social media and have been citing the watchdog organization Freedom House’s 2017 press freedom report, which claimed “global media freedom has reached its lowest level in 13 years.” This impending database is another blow to the press’s freedom, and not just from a national standpoint, but from a global standpoint. Our rights as the press and as people are being encroached upon all the time, and this database only makes it worse.

The document states that the database will be browsable by “location, beat and type of influencer,’ and for each influencer, the chosen contractor should ‘present contact details and any other information that could be relevant, including publications this influencer writes for, and an overview of the previous coverage published by the media influencer.”

This essentially means that anyone with access to the database will have everything an “influencer” has ever written, as well as their contact information. As a journalist, being in the public eye is a given, but allowing sources and the general population to know your contact information should be a personal decision, not a government decision. Journalists are not employed by the Department of Homeland Security, therefore the database not only infringes on the freedom of the press, but also our freedom to privacy.

Department spokesman Tyler Q. Houlton responded to the social media complaints by tweeting last week, “Despite what some reporters may suggest, this is nothing more than the standard practice of monitoring current events in the media. Any suggestion otherwise is fit for tin foil hat wearing, black helicopter conspiracy theorists.”

With all due respect, Mr. Houlton, we are not conspiracy theorists. We are not under the impression that the Kennedys’ had something to do with Marilyn Monroe’s death, we don’t believe that President George W. Bush “did 9/11,” and we certainly aren’t inclined to think that the moon landing was fake. We are journalists, and while we are still students, we are about to enter a field that prides itself on transparency, truth and factual information.

While the president –– and many Americans –– may think we’re just “fake news,” we only want the best for the country, and only want to keep them informed. Only 13 percent of the world’s countries have a free press … For now, the U.S. is one of them. However, if this “standard” database persists, we are on the way to getting rid of one of the few rights that makes our country unique.