Has the Indian Media Lost Its Ability to Speak Truth to Power?

25 February 2015

In an interview with Maureen Dowd, a columnist at the New York Times, in August last year, James Risen—a journalist with the New York Times himself and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner—described Barack Obama as “the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.” About six months later, on 18 February 2015, the investigative reporter repeated that charge in a tweet, responding to a speech by US Attorney General Eric Holder in which Holder argued that press leaks were doing more damage than good to the cause of national security.

Given Holder’s speech today, I repeat: The Obama Administration is the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.

— James Risen (@JamesRisen) February 18, 2015

Describing the Attorney General as “the nation’s top censorship officer,” Risen tweeted:

I plan to spend the rest of my life fighting to undo damage done to press freedom in the United States by Barack Obama and Eric Holder.

— James Risen (@JamesRisen) February 18, 2015

Having first taken on the Bush administration and now the Obama one, Risen has had multiple confrontations with the White House. The trouble began with the publication of Risen’s 2006 book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration in which he reported on the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) operations in Iran and a National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program through which details of US citizens’ telephone and email communications were being accumulated, without any search warrants. Equally damaging was his account of Operation Merlin, a botched up exercise conducted by the Clinton administration through which it might have unwittingly hastened Iran’s progress with nuclear weapons. In 2010, the Department of Justice launched an investigation into how Risen had acquired the information that had been recorded in his book, and issued an indictment against Jeffery Alexander Sterling—a former CIA officer who had left the agency in 2002—accusing him of unauthorised disclosure of national defence information and obstruction of justice. On 26 January 2015, Sterling was convicted of espionage by a federal court in Alexandria, in the state of Virginia. Although Risen took the stand on 5 January 2015 for forty-five minutes, he refused to be drawn into testifying against Sterling. He repeatedly said, “In my stories or my book, where I say I had unidentified sources, I had unidentified sources. Where I say I had identified sources, I had identified sources.” Risen’s defiance has come to symbolise the bitter stand-off between journalists and the Obama administration, which has gone after more journalists and whistle-blowers than his predecessor’s—George W Bush—administration did.

Monobina Gupta is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi.