March 7, 2019 update: Leaked documents show DHS has been tracking journalists and activists reporting on immigration, in some cases leading to increased scrutiny at border crossings. Meanwhile, DHS' proposed database has faced continued scrutiny from multiple angles.
RTDNA and its Voice of the First Amendment Task Force are expressing grave concern regarding a report the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is soliciting bids from companies that would create a database of “hundreds of thousands of news sources around the world and compile a database of journalists, editors, foreign correspondents, and bloggers to identify top ‘media influencers.’”
The reports, first published April 5 on the website Big Law Business, indicated DHS is “seeking a contractor that can help it monitor traditional news sources as well as social media and identify ‘any and all’ coverage related to the agency or a particular event, … . The data to be collected includes a publication’s ‘sentiment’ as well as geographical spread, top posters, languages, momentum, and circulation. The request comes amid heightened concern about accuracy in media and the potential for foreigners to influence U.S. elections and policy through ‘fake news.’”
According to the website, which is part of the Bloomberg family of news and information resources, the DHS request for proposals followed the receipt in March a letter from 19 Republican members of Congress questioning whether the Qatar-based news organization Al Jazeera should register as a foreign agent.
While owned by the government of Qatar, Al Jazeera insists its editorial decisions are never dictated by its owner. In a statement that followed the March letter to DHS, Al Jazeera said:
Since its establishment in 1996, Al Jazeera has continued to maintain its editorial independence from any governmental institutions, Qatari or otherwise, and it steers away from any political or ideological agenda. Our mission is to “inform and empower people with the accurate, in-depth content that upholds the values of truth and elevates the human spirit.” Speaking truth to power, as Al Jazeera does, is one of the roles of free media. This has resulted in harsh criticism from a number of the most oppressive and despotic regimes who want the media to portray only their side of the story - and have even called for the closure of the Al Jazeera Media Network. We are alarmed that some US lawmakers are aligned with such despotic regimes, rather than acting as gatekeepers for free speech and free media.
“Whether or not the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security is seeking to create a database of journalists and others as a result of the inquiries about Al Jazeera’s independence, it is wrong,” said Dan Shelley, RTDNA Executive Director.
“The fact the U.S. government may wish to monitor journalists would put the principles of the First Amendment, and the existence of responsible journalism, which are bedrocks of our democracy, on a perilous precipice,” Shelley added.
According to the Big Law Business site, companies interested in winning the DHS contract to monitor journalists and others have until April 13 to submit their proposals. The site reports that more than a half-dozen companies have already responded.
RTDNA formed the nonpartisan Voice of the First Amendment Task Force to defend against threats to the First Amendment and news media access, and to help the public better understand why responsible journalism is essential to their daily lives. RTDNA is a founding partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, the archive of record for threats against press freedom in America. Reach out to RTDNA by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.