Memos and Emails to Federal Agency Employees Ban Press Releases, Social Media Posts and “Outward Facing” Documents
Denying agencies from sharing and communicating with the public, even temporarily, denies citizens their rights to access and the ability to hold the government accountable.
The public’s access to its government and its employees is dying.
Tuesday, memos and emails, obtained by a variety of news organizations, show federal agencies are being prohibited from sending press releases, posting on social media and sharing information on blogs.
It is being described as a temporary media blackout but in reality, it is the public that is being kept in the dark.
The Associated Press is reporting emails sent to EPA staff since President Donald Trump took office, ban employees from “providing updates on social media or to reporters.” According to BuzzFeed News, USDA employees, specifically employees in the Agricultural Research Service department, were told not to release “any public-facing documents” including “news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content.”
This is a step away from transparency. This is also a step in the complete opposite direction of what The Society of Professional Journalists and more than 60 other journalism and free press organizations were hoping to discuss with President Trump and his administration when we sent a letter asking for more transparency within government agencies and more direct access to government employees.
The letter, sent to President Trump and his administration less than a week ago, specifically asked for a meeting to discuss three things:
- the ability of reporters to directly interact with government employees who are subject matter experts, rather than interacting with Public Information Officers (or having all conversations monitored by Public Information Officers);
- access to the activities of the President;
- and ensuring that the Federal Freedom of Information Act remains as strong as possible.
Policies, where federal agencies are barred, even temporarily, from releasing information to the public are unacceptable. These policies prevent the public from knowing what the agencies are spending taxpayer money on. They go against what this country was founded on. They go against our existence as a democracy.
These policies keep the public completely in the dark. They also do not allow journalists to hold the government and its officials accountable.
According to the Washington Post, USDA officials said ARS had not “blacked out public information.” They added, according to the article “that scientific articles published through professional peer-reviewed journals have not been banned.” In a statement, a representative with the ARS told the Washington Post, “as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific in-house research agency, ARS values and is committed to maintaining the free flow of information between our scientists and the American public as we strive to find solutions to agricultural problems affecting America.”
It is unclear if these directives came from within the USDA, from Trump himself or from officials overseeing the transition.
What is clear when instituting policies like this is that it shows a complete disregard for the public’s right to know what the government it is doing and it threatens the right of the public to access information through the Federal Freedom of Information Act.
SPJ will not stand by and watch as journalists and the public’s rights are being threatened. Even if temporary, this is a step away from an open and honest government.
Defending the First Amendment and promoting open government are more crucial now than ever. Join SPJ's fight for the publics right to know either as an SPJ Supporter or a professional, student or retired journalist.