Pressing issues

5/14/2013 UPDATED BELOW!

That press freedom and civil liberties in the United States have been significantly and systematically eroded since the dawn of the post-9/11 mindset, isn’t exactly breaking news. Over the years examples have mounted at ever accelerating pace of systematic encroachment on freedom of the press, curtailing of whistleblowers and the erosion of any concept of individual privacy. Today’s news of the U.S. Department’s unprecedented breach of journalistic privilege protected under the First Amendment by secretly collecting phone records of AP journalists and editors merely is the frightening culmination of an ongoing effort by the US government to control the message by curtailing the movement of the messengers and undermining access to their confidential sources.

That is not to belittle the seriousness of the transgressions committed by the Department of Justice against one of the countries leading news organizations (and who knows whether the transgressions were limited exclusively to the AP), but they are a logical continuation of a series of incidents that saw journalists under pressure for not conforming with the intended message sent by the White House for at least a decade.

The incarceration of then New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time’s Matt Cooper over their refusal to reveal confidential sources in connection with the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame was the first, and very poignant, confrontation between the Department of Justice and the media since the Patriot Act has given the government unprecedented surveillance capabilities. Poignant in particular, as the confidential sources turned out to be members of the same administration that was pressuring the journalist to reveal them.

By then the government’s urge to control the media had already brought us the “embedded reporter”, limiting journalists looking to gain direct access to US troops on the ground in Iraq to only move in conjunction with military units, and restricting their ability to report on information they might find on the ground that might impact military operation. While the concern over revealing the position and tactics of particular units was understandable, the restrictions placed on embedded journalists also turned out to cover information critical of the army’s operations, significantly delaying, but thankfully not preventing, the breaking of stories such as the torture tactics used in Abu Ghraib, and the use of depleted uranium shells and their impact on the health of civilians in Fallujah. The wikipedia entry on “embedded journalism” quotes Lt. Col. Rick Long of the U.S. Marine Corps as explaining the origin of the embedding tactic with, “Frankly, our job is to win the war. Part of that is information warfare. So we are going to attempt to dominate the information environment.”

In some cases, the government’s war on terror has also kept international journalists from traveling to the US, such as Colombian reporter Hollman Morris, widely known for his thorough coverage of the conflict between the government and armed guerillas inside his country. When, in 2010, he was awarded a Nieman Fellowship to study conflict negotiation strategies at Harvard University, he was denied a student visa under the “terror activities” section of the Patriot Act over alleged links to terrorism. As Morris’ coverage was often critical of the Colombian President Uribe’s handling of the internal conflict, human rights activists have voiced suspicions that the government had pressured the Obama administration into denying him the visa. Only a public outcry and pressure from press organization finally allowed Morris to obtain a visa and travel to Boston for his studies.

But the government, especially under President Obama, is not only pursuing the messenger. Its attempt to dominate the information environment at home persecutes also those that leak information it does not want publicly known:

Danielle Brian, of the Project on Government Oversight, said the US department of justice in the Obama administration “sent a clear of message of fear and intimidation” to whistleblowers in the national security field” by not only threatening whistleblowers inside government agencies, but actually prosecuting them under the Espionage Act of 1917.

Most notably, US Army Private Bradley Manning has spent three years in isolation detention over his role in leaking highly embarrassing confidential information to WikiLeaks, whose founder Julian Assange is now hiding inside the Equadorian Embassy in London for fear of being extradited to the US for publishing that information. On February 28, 2013, Manning pleaded guilty to 10 of the 22 charges brought against him at the pre-trial hearings in the military court at Fort Meade. The trial is set to begin in June.

Former CIA employee John Kiriakou was prosecuted, and sentenced to 30 months in jail, by the Obama administration for revealing water boarding and torture as an outspoken policy of the Bush and Obama administrations, and not the deprived actions of a few rogue agents inside the armed forces.

A total of six government whistleblowers have so far been prosecuted by Obama’s Department of Justice for revealing that some at the FBI worried that Israel might attack Iran, wrongdoings at the NSA, or concerns at the State Department over then North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-il’s nuclear program.

The US government’s march against press freedom is not limited to stories of international scope, but regularly involves a claimed national security angle and increasingly entangles local law enforcement agencies in the ongoing confrontation with the media.

In 2002, Toni Locy wrote a series of articles about an army scientist suspected of involvement in the mailing of anthrax filled letters to elected officials after the 9/11 attacks. For refusing to reveal her sources the reporter was held in contempt of court and ordered to pay a fine of $5,000.

In 2006 Blogger Joshua Wolf was jailed for 30 days before being released on bail for refusing to release a video of clashes between police and protesters outside a G-8 summit in San Francisco. Having lost his trial, he was sent back to jail for a total of 226 days, the longest any journalist has gone to jail to protect a confidential source.

In 2007, two journalists were subpoenad by the military courts requesting they turn over interviews they had conducted with First Lieutenant Ehren Watada, the first US officer to refuse service in the Iraq war. Only after significant public pressure and a plea bargain involving Watada, did the Army drop the subpoenas against the reporters.

In 2011, journalists in Puerto Rico covering protests of students against increases in university taxes have been detained and harassed by local police.

Confrontations between press and local police forces came to a head at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the fall of 2011, as over 80 journalists were arrested in a variety of protest actions and raids by the police on encampments in New York City and elsewhere around the country. The International Press Institute reported at the time that journalists had found themselves charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct, and the intentional causing of public alarm amongst other offenses for covering the protests even while wearing press credentials. As a consequence of the journalist arrests at Occupy, Reporters without Borders lowered the ranking of the United States in their annual World Press Freedom Index by 20 slots down to 47th out of 179 ranked countries, right behind the Comoros, Botswana and just ahead of Trinidad and Tobago.

The American press’ standing in the public eye was not helped by a 2009 report published by the Pew Research Center, which concluded that “only 20 percent of Americans say they believe the media is independent from the pressures of powerful people and organizations”, while “less than one-third of Americans believe their press “generally gets the facts straight”,  accusing it of political bias and lacking objectivity. Some have since tried to shift the blame for the heightened polarization in the US media on bloggers and freelance journalists, but increasing bias can be found both in mainstream and independent news outlets.

Local journalists working in New York have long complained about increasingly repressive tactics used by NYPD against free access by members of the press to internal sources and the coverage of police activity not only in incidents connected to the Occupy movement. Ever since Mayor Bloomberg looked to limit media access to police stations and other parts of the local government, journalists and photographers (including yours truly) have been arrested for documenting arrests and conducting interviews with passersby on public sidewalks, systematically blocked from taking pictures of protester and other arrests and threatened with removal of press credentials and arrest when protesting the blocking of access. At an event held by the New York Press Club on suppression of the media in New York in March 2012, New York Post reporter Murray Weiss, who had worked the NYPD beat since the 1980s commented that the New York Police Department was “so successful in doing what they wanted the way they wanted it to do and get away with it, that they were now afraid of the press.”

A similar reaction appears to be that of the Obama administration’s secret monitoring of AP’s reporting activities over the period of 2 months as part of their investigation over the leaks of the CIA’s involvement in the thwarting of a terror plot in Yemen. First reported by AP, the story was widely criticized for revealing sensitive information about active operations on the ground, even though the newswire had held the story for two weeks after a request by the government. In its effort to prosecute those that have leaked the information from Yemen to the AP and other news outlets, the US Department of Justice had obtained a so-called “secret subpoena” to collect phone records of over 20 lines assigned to journalists and editors at the New York based newswire.

This incident also adds an exclamation point to the debate over who is a journalist and who is not. Individual reporters might not be as well connected inside the government as a global news organization, but they’re harder to control and keep on message.

Of crucial importance here are the questions this incident raises:

– How widespread is secret government surveillance of the media, individual journalists, and their news sources, what other data has the government collected, who has access to it and how will the increased culture of fear affect individual’s ability and willingness to come forward with information of government wrongdoing?

– What recourse do journalists have against the systematic infringement of their constitutional rights to gather and report the news?

– And most importantly: When will the media start pushing back against their harassment and suppression at the hand of the government?

Enough is enough, and hopefully the blatant intrusion on AP’s news gathering operation by the Department of Justice will finally raise up the gander in the country’s media outlets to start protesting in earnest and consistently the erosion of the protection awarded to the fourth estate under the country’s constitution. While all the past incidents listed above have raised complaints about press freedom concerns, they have mostly ended by the media giving in to the government’s stance under the guise of serving national security. However, at this point the media risks being a detriment to the safety of the homeland not by asking critical questions of an ever increasingly overbearing security apparatus, but rather by not asking them.  The Internet and social media have given an outlet to critical voices that are currently being drowned out in mainstream media outlets. Yet it is imperative that news outlets of all stripes keep asking the tough questions for soon we might no longer be able to do so, and then, as a profession, we have truly failed the people of this country.

The laws of diminishing returns applies to matters of national security as much as they apply elsewhere. Right after the 9/11 attacks it absolutely made sense to tighten up cooperation between different federal agencies to make sure we won’t miss another red flag like the group of flight school students who showed no discernible interest in how to land a plane safely. It made sense to take a closer look at what people bring with them onto airplanes once we understood that people were looking to blow them up. We even wrapped our heads around putting our flip-flops through an x-ray machine at the airport to avoid further shoe bombing attempts. But where is the line where the increase in safety that is obtained by a new security measure costs too much freedom? Is it worth to give up free speech and a free press to pursue the utopia of a terror-free world? We all want to sleep safely at night, without fear of terror and intimidation. But, me thinks, that requires more than anything that we do all we can to ensure we hang on to our personal freedoms and a press that dares to ask the important questions.

Pressing issues ahead, indeed!

UPDATE (5/14/2013)

The guys over at Brave New Foundation have interviewed some of the countries leading investigative journalists on what yesterday’s revelations about the government spying on AP means for democracy in this country. Great work!

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