AHCJ protests FDA surveillance of communication between reporters, scientists

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

Following a New York Times report over the weekend that revealed the federal government secretly tracked communication sent by FDA scientists to “members of Congress, lawyers, labor officials, journalists and even President Obama,” the Association of Health Care Journalists has expressed alarm at the “Orwellian practices” in a letter sent to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

From the letter:

” … the pushback on journalists seeking information from HHS and its agencies, coupled with covert monitoring of scientists’ communications with journalists and elected representatives, reflects a culture of cynicism within your department toward the principles of open government, free speech, and the public’s right to know. The actions detailed in the Times story imperil all reporters’ relationships with HHS and its agencies.”

The letter goes on to request that the agency notify all reporters whose communications were intercepted and conduct an audit of all HHS divisions to find out how widespread the monitoring is.

The Times reports that the surveillance grew out of a “narrow investigation into the possible leaking of confidential agency information by five scientists” and “identified 21 agency employees, Congressional officials, outside medical researchers and journalists thought to be working together to put out negative and ‘defamatory’ information about the agency.”

The report was especially shocking to AHCJ because the association has been working for years to make it easier for reporters to interview federal employees and get information from HHS agencies. The HHS media office has been receptive to the organization’s concerns and pledged to improve responsiveness. Indeed, many members have reported improvements in access. But the Times story points a deeper culture running contrary to these efforts.

The FDA used software that tracked keystrokes and captured screenshots on the scientists’ computers. The documents were eventually posted on a public website, apparently by mistake, the Times says.

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