BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The war on terrorism brings with it an ever-present state of alert and constant warnings about the threat to our society. Most of those warnings are from our government, in the form of color-coded threat levels, but now comes an alert about our government's incremental assault on the public's right to know. This comes courtesy of the Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press, in a report complete with a color-coded chart of its very own. Lucy Dalglish is executive director of the Reporter's Committee, and she joins me now. Lucy, welcome back to the show.
LUCY DALGLISH: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: We are usually loathe to bite on naked publicity stunts, but this one [LAUGHTER] is kind of clever.
LUCY DALGLISH: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Some of the alert levels are relatively low. Access to printer's ink -- Code Beige. [LAUGHTER] But-- two areas of press freedom that you believe are in the Red zone - Red or Severe--
LUCY DALGLISH: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: -- are access to terrorism and immigration legal proceedings--
LUCY DALGLISH: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: -- and the Freedom of Information Act. Tell me.
LUCY DALGLISH: There has been a cloak of secrecy that has slipped down over our court system that I find to be very, very disturbing. Immediately after 9/11, more than 1200 foreign nationals were arrested, and we don't know who those people are. We don't know who's down in Guantanamo. There have been a number of entirely secret criminal court cases in the federal courts. I'm perfectly willing to concede that some of these folks probably do need to be handled with extreme care. However, one thing that we've always assumed, I think, in this country is that we don't lock people up in secret and, essentially, throw away the key.
BOB GARFIELD: For many years, the press and the public have had access to executive branch documents, through the Freedom of Information Act. You say that's under attack at the moment. Tell me how.
LUCY DALGLISH: Well, shortly after 9/11, Attorney General Ashcroft issued a directive, advising the executive branch agencies how they should interpret the Federal Freedom of Information Act, and his interpretation of the act was far more restrictive of the release of documents than the previous order under Attorney General Reno had been, and the result of that is that fewer documents are being released to the public. There are also actions that are happening in, in the executive branch agencies that make it very difficult for information about critical infrastructure such as communications or transportation to be released to the public. Websites that agencies used to have posted on the internet have been taken down. There is just a general atmosphere of secrecy out there.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, let's go back to your color-coded alert chart which is not only alarming but very pretty, if I might say.
LUCY DALGLISH: Oh, thank you. I wish we had a little bit more green in there. We don't have anybody in the green territory.
BOB GARFIELD: I'm sorry to hear that. [LAUGHTER] On aesthetic and philosophical grounds. But tell me about where stands the Patriot Act. It is of course much reviled, but also often defended by the administration as absolutely necessary to protect the homeland at a time of imminent threat. What color does it get, and why is there less urgency attached to it than some of these other categories?
LUCY DALGLISH: Well, you know, when people say that access to information is going the wrong way, they just assume that it has something to do with the Patriot Act, and the Patriot Act does not cover nearly as much as people seem to think it does. We declare that the Patriot Act is Orange --high risk. There are some major problems with it. The one that distresses us in the media the most is the fact that, contrary to the Privacy Protection Act of 1980, which makes it extremely difficult for the Justice Department or any police to search a newsroom, the Patriot Act makes it much more likely that the FBI is going to search newsrooms to find out who people's sources were and information that had been turned over to reporters. And really, the part that makes it just about unconscionable, from a journalists's standpoint is, if your newsroom has been searched, the Patriot Act gags you from telling anyone that you've been searched.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, I'm thoroughly depressed. I, I don't know if any buildings are going to blow up immediately around me, but I can certainly see that other threats are very real, and yet in your introduction of this report you write that American citizens and lawmakers seem to be slowly realizing that they must speak up or their ideal of a free and open society will be a thing of the past. What evidence is there that the American public is really waking up to these attacks on press freedom?
LUCY DALGLISH: You're getting more individuals and organizations filing lawsuits. I'm noticing more letters to the editor on these topics. I think the media has finally started to wake up and is starting to cover this issue. I mean we've been putting out this report for three years now. This is the first time I've gotten a sizable number of media organizations who want to talk about the report. But the information has been there for three years.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Lucy. Well, as always, thank you very much.
LUCY DALGLISH: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Lucy Dalglish is executive director of the Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press which has just released a very alarming color-coded system for determining how threatened our public information is. [MUSIC]