PD Editorial: Reporters don’t belong on secret government watchlists

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News broke last week that the Trump administration has tracked and harassed American journalists and others working on the southern border. That outrageous behavior is cast in even starker light as the nation marks Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of government transparency. Any despot knows that the one of the first steps to securing power is suppressing the free press.

For some government officials, journalists are at best a nuisance. Reporters ask for public records, show up at public meetings and shine sunlight on the goings-on of government. Then editorial writers and columnists comment on what elected officials and bureaucrats do.

We get it. It can be annoying for elected officials and government bureaucrats. Press watchdogs work hard to keep the people informed about things. It would be so much easier to run things if the public weren’t always looking over your shoulder.

But democracy doesn’t work that way. Government transparency ensures that the public can engage fully in policy decisions and cast informed votes on Election Day.

That’s not to say the press is above criticism. We welcome people challenging our work. Fair criticism helps us improve, as it does anyone. Even when President Donald Trump childishly tweets that journalists are the enemy of the people, we can take it. Our credibility emerges from a track record of accurate reporting and correcting mistakes, not the assessment of any single politician.

What’s unacceptable is turning the power of the state against a free press. That moves from name-calling to undermining a pillar of democracy.

And that’s exactly what the Trump administration did. Journalists in San Diego obtained government records that show the administration has been tracking journalists and activists connected to last year’s migrant caravan that arrived at the southern border. Officials compiled the list during the run-up to the November election, when the caravan — and the narratives spun around it — were a hot news topic.

Officials added the names of 10 journalists, an attorney and dozens of other people labeled as “organizers” or “instigators” to secret databases for extra monitoring. Some of them wound up with travel alerts placed on their passports.

The U.S. government should be better than secret lists of people deemed a threat without any due process. This goes beyond investigating potential risks to public safety and into suppression of ideas that one administration doesn’t like.

When reporters can be detained or prevented from traveling, they cannot do their work. Border officials prevented at least three of the journalists from entering Mexico because of the holds. That, in turn, prevents the public from learning what’s happening. It’s not as if every American can hop on a plane, fly to the border and interview members of a group of migrants.

Now, that the existence of such lists is public, the administration should come clean. How widespread was this tracking? How did officials use the list? Does this interference in lawful activities continue?

And if the administration won’t answer those questions, add it to the list of things Congress needs to investigate. The American people deserve to know what the government is doing. The American people deserve sunshine.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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