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Justice Department issues new guidelines for when federal investigators try to access journalists’ records

<i>Samuel Corum/Getty Images</i><br/>The Justice Department released new guidance Wednesday to assist federal investigators abide by department rules when attempting to access journalists’ records.
Samuel Corum/Getty Images
The Justice Department released new guidance Wednesday to assist federal investigators abide by department rules when attempting to access journalists’ records.

By Hannah Rabinowitz, CNN

(CNN) — The Justice Department released new guidance Wednesday to assist federal investigators abide by department rules when attempting to access journalists’ records.

The department bars employees from secretly seeking reporters’ records except in limited circumstances. Attorney General Merrick Garland codified those rules after it was revealed that the Justice Department during the Trump administration had seized records from reporters at various news organizations, including CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Under department rules, prosecutors are only allowed to subpoena journalists’ records in certain circumstances, including if the information they are seeking is imperative to prevent a serious crime, if the journalist themselves are the target of an investigation, if the records involve already public information or if the journalist agrees to the disclosure of their records.

The guidance released Wednesday is intended to help DOJ personnel understand whether they can seek journalists records, and how they can abide by the rules if they plan to subpoena those records.

“This Policy is not intended to extend special protections to members of the news media who are subjects or targets of a criminal investigation, or are parties to a civil investigation, for conduct outside the scope of newsgathering,” the guidance, posted on the department website, states.

The guidance tells prosecutors to evaluate whether someone is a reporter by looking at “the frequency of the person’s or entity’s reporting and whether the person or entity brings information to the attention of the public, engages in newsgathering, has independent sources, holds press credentials, is employed by a member of the news media, and/or is widely identified as a journalist or reporter.”

“The Department does not consider the ideology or viewpoint of a person or entity, or of its reporting, when determining whether that person or entity qualifies as a member of the news media for purposes of this Policy,” the guidance states.

Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, praised the guidance in a statement to CNN.

“The new guidance shows the commitment of DOJ leadership to further anchor within the Department the historic policy changes it put in place in 2022,” Brown said. “Those new rules better protect the watchdog role of the press and the Justice Manual provisions provide the daily details to help prosecutors carry out this objective.”

This story has been updated with additional reaction.

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