EDITORIAL: Risky business: Public access to information under increasing attack in US

People have a basic right to know what the people they elected into office are doing, and how their tax dollars are being used. That’s one of the core principals of our government, part of the very first of our Bill of Rights.

All elected officials should know those rights, but not all of them like it. Some might seek public office to enrich themselves or to push specific ideological agendas, and chafe at the scrutiny that could lead to public opposition or even criminal charges.

Some officials work to restrict public access to government information through legislation, litigation or procedural roadblocks.

A more nefarious way to fight accountability and transparency is outright violence, or the threat of violence, against the news media.

Historically, violence against reporters has occurred mostly in foreign countries with authoritarian governments. Unfortunately, it’s on the rise in our own country — and by our own country.

Anti-media actions begin at the top. Our president constantly talks about “fake news” and calls news media the “enemy of the people.” He publicly berates reporters and orders them thrown out of public events, and security officials dutifully comply.

Perhaps this has emboldened some people, as attacks on reporters have increased. This month alone one photojournalist was attacked and his camera damaged during a protest in Sacramento, Calif. Another news crew was accosted, one of them shot, in San Francisco.

More alarmingly, aggression against the media is on the rise from arms of the government, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Three reporters were arrested while documenting the same Sacramento protest, and the 12-year-old reporter of an internet video blog who was following an Arizona town marshal on a call was stopped and threatened with arrest.

“I don’t want to hear about any of that freedom-of-the-press stuff,” the marshal reportedly told the young reporter.

At the federal level, reporters covering border issues increasingly have been subjected to harsh treatment and interrogation at border crossings. One journalist reported being detained for 13 hours at one office; many have said their cameras, computers and phones have been seized and they’ve been ordered to give pass codes to access information on them. This could compromise information about confidential sources that could put those sources and the reporters in danger.

Moreover, at least 59 reporters, human rights advocates and others who went to Mexico last year to report on migrant caravans from Central America later were unable to re-enter Mexico or go to other foreign countries because our administration had “flagged” their passports.

Investigating the matter — as reporters do — they found that the government had built dossiers on them that included personal information about them and their families and descriptions of their vehicles.