Anjum Naveed / AP

Journalists are not terrorists

Reporters need freedom to do their jobs, even if it means contacting unsavory characters

May 15, 2015 9:30AM ET

The U.S. National Security Agency placed an Al Jazeera journalist on a terrorist watch list on the basis of contacts he made with sources, according to an Intercept report published last week. The story should alarm the public about government threats to journalists and misuses of raw intelligence data.

Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, Al Jazeera’s Islamabad bureau chief, was identified as a member of both Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood by an NSA software program called Skynet that analyzes communication metadata such as phone contacts and location. On the basis of whom Zaidan telephoned, who called him and where the calls took place, Skynet labeled him a member of both organizations. The Intercept reported these findings on May 8 based on analysis of one of the numerous documents released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

One of those documents, an NSA PowerPoint slide listing Zaidan’s imagined affiliations, would be ridiculous if it weren’t so serious. This is how America’s intelligence apparatus with its massive funding, cutting-edge computers and armies of big-brained analysts identifies enemies of the state? Is it any wonder that so many civilians have been accidentally killed in drone attacks?

Zaidan’s predicament is not unique. The same NSA algorithm, applied to my calls for the last half century, would label me some sort of real life Raymond Reddington — the criminal mastermind of the NBC series “The Blacklist” — in contact with violent revolutionaries on both the right and left. The metadata would show an astonishing array of criminals and corrupt officials in contact with me over the decades. I’ve placed calls to a few bombmakers, spies, Mafia hit men, con artists, more drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes than I can remember and a host of corrupt government officials and cops.

Only by interviewing people like these can we ever know more than the official version of events. Governments and corporations often dislike journalists telling unofficial facts and truths, especially when they cast doubt on the official version. Many of the rogues I have known were more honest and forthright and their information was more reliable than what elected and appointed officials said.

Taking risks for information

Anyone who has read Zaidan’s years of reporting would call him a dedicated and fearless journalist whose beat is to write about unsavory people. You would think intelligence agencies would be especially grateful for journalists with the guts and skill to get perceived enemies of the state to talk to them. Stories by journalists such as Zaidan, Lawrence Wright or Seymour Hersh are rich with useful information, thanks to the extraordinary risks they take to dig it up.

Governments have reasons to dirty up journalists who report truths they wish would be kept from the people.

Reporting on people naturally involves actually talking to them. When John Miller was an ABC news correspondent, he sat down with Osama bin Laden in 1998. Instead of being labeled a member of Al Qaeda, Miller went on to become a high-level official at the FBI and the NYPD.

Zaidan’s reporting has held up over time and has often included specific and accurate details that officials denied at the time. Whether years later the clips show you got it right — that is the best test to separate serious reporters from those who are more government stenographer than journalist, more gullible than skeptical. Unfortunately, it is this sort of professional commitment to the truth that attracts government hostility.

Governments have reasons to dirty up journalists who report truths they wish would be kept from the people. They want to discredit honest reporting that calls into question the trustworthiness of government officials and the effectiveness or legality of government conduct. They want to make sure people do not hear unofficial versions of the facts. They want to poison the well, getting editors to distrust their reporters so stories at least get muted. The more they succeed, the more damage is done to our democracy.

Restoring confidence

Zaidan, fortunately, works for a news organization with integrity and backbone, one with long experience dealing with many governments trying to intimidate reporters and shut down inconvenient journalism.

The NSA conclusion, Al Jazeera said in a statement, is “yet another attempt at using questionable techniques to target our journalists and, in doing so, enforce a gross breach of press freedom.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists and other professional groups have also denounced the NSA label.

While pronouncements like these are welcome, they are not enough. Around the world, journalists are under increasing assault. Last year 61 were killed and 221 were in prison for doing their jobs. Many arrests are bogus, designed to block coverage of official conduct. In the U.S., reporters are being arrested more and more just to make sure you are not informed. The public must demand more of its leaders.

President Barack Obama should take steps to restore confidence by telling the NSA to apologize to Zaidan and by announcing that no one ever will ever be labeled anything based on the pattern of their telephone calls, emails or other communications.

If our liberties are to endure, we must have journalists who aggressively pursue the truth without being labeled anything except honest reporters. And their work must not be impeded by political pressure, especially patently false labels.

David Cay Johnston, an investigative reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize while at The New York Times, teaches business, tax and property law of the ancient world at the Syracuse University College of Law. He is the best-selling author of “Perfectly Legal,” “Free Lunch” and “The Fine Print” and the editor of the new anthology “Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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