The Society of Professional Journalists, the National Newspaper Association and 36 other journalism and open government groups sent a letter to President Obama Tuesday asking him to stop “politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies.”

“Over the past two decades, public agencies have increasingly prohibited staff from communicating with journalists unless they go through public affairs offices or through political appointees,” the letter said. “This trend has been especially pronounced in the federal government. We consider these restrictions a form of censorship — an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear.”

“The stifling of free expression is happening despite your pledge on your first day in office to bring ‘a new era of openness’ to federal government …,” the letter continues.

Problem getting worse

“Recent research has indicated the problem is getting worse throughout the nation, particularly at the federal level. Journalists are reporting that most federal agencies prohibit their employees from communicating with the press unless the bosses have public relations staffers sitting in on the conversations.

“Contact is often blocked completely. When public affairs officers speak, even about routine public matters, they often do so confidentially in spite of having the title ‘spokesperson.’ Reporters seeking interviews are expected to seek permission, often providing questions in advance. Delays can stretch for days, longer than most deadlines allow. Public affairs officers might send their own written responses of slick non-answers. Agencies hold on-background press conferences with unnamed officials, on a not-for-attribution basis.

“In many cases, this is clearly being done to control what information journalists – and the audience they serve – have access to. A survey found 40 percent of public affairs officers admitted they blocked certain reporters because they did not like what they wrote.”

Transparency ombudsman proposed

The letter concludes by asking President Obama to “provide an avenue through which any incidents of this suppression of communication may be reported and corrected. Create an ombudsman to monitor and enforce your stated goal of restoring transparency to government and giving the public the unvarnished truth about its workings. That will go a long way toward dispelling Americans’ frustration and cynicism before it further poisons our democracy.” and its staff are members of the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Newspaper Association, which signed the letter. concentrates its coverage on state and local agencies in Maryland, and has generally not experienced a similar lack of cooperation by state and local officials. However, some of the practices cited at the federal level do occur in Maryland, particularly the requirement that all information come through a public information officer. In that case, an official “spokesperson” who asks not be identified is particularly frustrating.

–Len Lazarick