Media needs protection from government intrusion into news-gathering

Illinois and the entire country should let Sen. Dick Durbin know that he has our full support in moving the PRESS Act forward.

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 Chicago Sun-Times newspaper boxes are seen in this photo, Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 29, 2021.

Chicago Sun-Times newspaper boxes are seen in this photo from Sept. 29, 2021.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

For democracy to survive, journalists must be protected from government surveillance and shielded from harassment.

I’ve served as a founding board member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) since its inception, with the goal to protect the First and Fourth Amendment rights of journalists, whistleblowers and sources from the constant threats from government surveillance — and the ever-expanding dangers of surveillance capitalism.

Our mission is to fiercely protect free press and free speech principles and rights — not the personalities involved. Any and every individual journalist and source is important because, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum, when their rights are violated, all our rights are violated, and we are all in danger.

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As FPF’s advocacy director explained in a recent op-ed published by the Sun-Times, passage of the PRESS (Protect Reporters from Exploitative State Spying) Act is absolutely vital and essential to maintain First Amendment press freedoms. We live in an era in which journalists, publishers, sources and whistle-blowers risk prosecution, and presidential hopefuls threaten journalists with jail time as laugh lines — as red meat for their political “base” as they gin up anti-democratic authoritarian movements in these times of peril.

Fortunately, we have a senator in Illinois who understands the importance of the Fourth Estate. Sen. Dick Durbin knows that journalists do not work for the government. They cannot do their important jobs when they’re forced to spend their days in courtrooms and depositions. And news sources do not come forward when they’re afraid of being unmasked in federal court.

We cannot allow the government to surveil journalists and expose sources — even the threat of which produces a chilling effect on the press — if we expect journalists to expose corruption, speak truth to power and print what the powerful don’t want printed. As the man said, everything else is just public relations.

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American newspapers are already facing enough challenges these days between layoffs, budget cuts, and the anti-media rhetoric that has become so common among many politicians. The last thing newspapers need is more government intrusion into the news-gathering process. As technologies evolve, surveillance of journalists becomes even more dangerous. Data and metadata — in addition to traditional newsgathering materials and source identities — need protection, now more than ever.

Durbin has a history of support for the First Amendment and he should be proud of that track record. The PRESS Act, which he can advance as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, offers us a rare opportunity to preserve and strengthen press freedoms for the next generation. Illinois and the entire country should let Durbin know that he has our full support in moving this important legislation forward.

John Cusack is a founding board member of Freedom of the Press Foundation. He is also an actor, director, producer, and screenwriter and the author, along with Arundhati Roy of the book “Things that Can and Cannot be Said.”

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.

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