A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who writes for The Associated Press said Monday that the Department of Justice's investigation into two months of AP phone records has had a "chilling effect" on the ability of the organization to do its work.
Martha Mendoza spent much of the past year working on a "right-to-know" project with the AP, testing freedom of information laws in more than 100 countries and detailing each government's response. Mendoza and her colleagues found that more than half of governments measured either ignore information requests from journalists or aren't forthcoming with requested documents. For the project, she won a "Champion of Freedom" award from the Electronic Privacy Information Center Monday.
During her acceptance speech, Mendoza said the Department of Justice investigation was a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into the private news gathering practices of more than 20 journalists.
"These records obtained by the Justice Department listed incoming and outgoing calls with work and home phone numbers of individual reporters, the general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for the AP's House of Representatives press gallery," she said. "Has this had a chilling effect? It's unbelievable. Yes it has."
Mendoza's comments echoed those of the company's CEO, Gary Pruitt, who said in May that the investigation was "so sweeping, secretively, so abusively and harassingly overbroad" that it was unconstitutional. Pruitt said that since the investigation came to light last month, sources have been reticent to talk to AP journalists out of fear that their phone calls may have been monitored.
The DOJ reportedly seized phone records during an investigation related to a May 7, 2012 AP story about the CIA stopping an al-Qaida plot to detonate a bomb aboard a United States-bound airplane. Attorney General Eric Holder has denied that he was involved with the investigation, saying that his deputy, James Cole, had ordered the seizure.
"With regard to the potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material, that is not something that I've ever been involved in, heard of or would think would be a wise policy," Holder told Congress on May 15.
Mendoza won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2000 for her story about the mass killings of South Korean civilians by American soldiers during the early stages of the Korean War. She said Monday that the latest DOJ investigation further highlights the need to fight for freedom of the press.
"Here it is, 2013, and the fight for a free press, the fight for transparency, and open government access continues to be a core component of journalism," she said.