A few weeks ago, Guardian columnist Trevor Timm, who is also the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, expressed his dismay that “more people aren’t raising their voices (and pens, and keyboards) in protest” at what he calls “the outrageous legal attack on WikiLeaks and its staffers, who are exercising their First Amendment rights to publish classified information in the public interest—just like virtually every other major news organization in this country” (i.e. the US).
Timm’s comments followed the revelation that Google had handed emails from WikiLeaks staffers to the US government. Calling the steps taken against WikiLeaks “an attack on freedom of the press itself,” Timm went on to illustrate the length that both the US and the UK government had gone to in attacking WikiLeaks.
Attacks on press freedom
Say about WikiLeaks what you like but Timm is right: press freedom continues to be under attack and we have seen many manifestations of it over the past months and years.
A few examples:
That same “solicitation” theory, as the New York Times reported back in 2011, is the one the Obama DOJ has been using to justify its ongoing criminal investigation of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange: that because Assange solicited or encouraged [US army whistleblower Chealsea] Manning to leak classified information, the US government can “charge [Assange] as a conspirator in the leak, not just as a passive recipient of the documents who then published them.” When that theory was first disclosed, I wrote that it would enable the criminalization of investigative journalism generally”.
Similar terms like the ones used to describe Rosen (aider-abetter, co-conspirator) were used to describe the journalists involved in the Snowden disclosures, some or all of whom were also threatened with prosecution. It is ridiculous, of course, to try and make the mere publication of information by the media a criminal offence. One of the functions of the media being to hold governments to account, it would be a dangerous thing indeed if any media outlet exposing government misconduct based on leaked information that the media has passively received could be subject to prosecution.
In another example of how governments – in this case the US government under president Obama – “threaten and intimidate whistleblowers, journalists and activists who meaningfully challenge what the government does in secret,” Journalist James Risen was subpoenaed and threatened with jail during a leaks investigation against CIA operative Jeffrey Sterling. Risen was prepared to go to jail rather than compromise his source by testifying against Sterling. Risen ultimately was not forced to testify – the DOJ decided not to insist – but the case against him lasted no less than seven years and it created “bad precedent, and not every executive branch in the future will exercise their discretion the way this one did. It didn’t have to go this way.” Meaning, the DOJ could very well have decided to press the point. Risen was effectively spared jail on a whim and, as the NY Times writes “these developments…do not really settle the big issues raised by President Obama’s devoted pursuit of whistle-blowers and the reporters who receive their information.” Neither do they “erase the Obama administration’s record of bringing more leak cases than all the president’s predecessors combined.”
Most recently, Journalist Barret Brown was sentenced to five years in prison for being involved with Anonymous. Not, mind you, for any criminal hacking, but essentially for copying and pasting a link to information made public by hackers. Contributors to Brown’s website were “declared… criminals, and participants in a criminal conspiracy.” When a judge declined to subpoena the records of these contributors, apparently, the US governments sought to obtain them by “other means” so it could investigate the contributors and possibly press charges. Glenn Greenwald has written an illuminating article on the prosecution of Barret Brown for the Guardian.
There are of course the cases of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, who are but two of the whistleblowers charged – and in Manning’s case prosecuted – with unprecedented ferocity by the Obama government.
And then, just this January, the revelation that Google handed emails of WikiLeaks staffers over the US government. Prior to this, WikiLeaks supporters including TOR project analyst Jabcob Applebaum and Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir had their Twitter data seized as part of an investigation into WikiLeaks. The FBI even had an informant inside WikiLeaks.
In the dragnet
All of this goes to show how far governments are prepared to go to stop the free press from exercising their right to free speech and to keep certain information under wraps. Yet despite how undemocratic, concerning and downright outrageous this is, a lot of people, including those journalists and press freedom groups Timm criticises for being silent, do not seem very interested or concerned by this. As to the reason for that, we can only guess. Perhaps, to many people, these problems seem too far removed from their world and their lives. They are not journalists or activists and they have no problem with the authorities.
Others simply may not like Julian Assange, that dude who has been crashing at the Ecuadorian embassy in London for ages now to avoid extradition to Sweden to face allegations of sexual misconduct (and possibly to the US from thence). They couldn’t care less that it “sickens” WikiLeaks journalist Sarah Harrison that “the FBI read the words [she] wrote to console [her] mother over a death in the family.”
After all, the argument may go, these people had it coming. They took on the government and now they are getting their just deserts. That view is, of course, incredibly short-sighted. The obvious civil liberties argument aside, the scope of information that was gathered from the three WikiLeaks staffers is frightening enough to give anyone the heebie jeebies. Once again, it makes clear how easy it is for innocent people to not only end up in a dragnet but have private and intimate communications investigated simply hey may have sent a perfectly innocent email to someone who just happens to be under scrutiny from the security services:
The court orders [against the WikiLeaks staffers] cast a data net so wide as to ensnare virtually all digital communications originating from or sent to the three. Google was told to hand over the contents of all their emails, including those sent and received, all draft correspondence and deleted emails. The source and destination addresses of each email, its date and time, and size and length were also included in the dragnet. The FBI also demanded all records relating to the internet accounts used by [the investigations editor of WikiLeaks, the British citizen Sarah Harrison; the spokesperson for the organisation, Kristinn Hrafnsson; and Joseph Farrell, one of its senior editors], including telephone numbers and IP addresses, details of the time and of their online activities, and alternative email addresses. Even the credit card or bank account numbers associated with the accounts had to be revealed.
This “hand over everything you’ve got” approach means, for example, that not even deleted emails are safe. Now, make the argument again, if you please, that you have nothing to hide and thus nothing to fear and watch me responding that surely, you deleted that email you never sent for a reason. That perhaps you deleted certain parts of it because, after all, you did not want them to be read. Perhaps they were personal thoughts, or perhaps you re-read what you had written and realised it was, actually, rather embarrassing. Everyone has something they don’t want people to know about. Be it that you have recently found out your wife is expecting a baby and you don’t want to tell anyone yet, except your closest friend who just happens to be abroad at the time. Basically, don’t put than in an email. And before you pick up the phone, bear in mind that phone correspondence with someone outside your given country isn’t quite safe either because it’s considered foreign correspondence.
Support truth tellers
Trevor Timm is right; it is “shocking that more people aren’t raising their voices (and pens, and keyboards) in protest” at the invasion of their and other people’s privacy and attacks on “on freedom of the press itself”. Without a right to free speech and a free press, not only wouldn’t we know about any of the things outlined in this post, but democracy itself would become impossible. If all our communications are monitored then how are we to make free choices?
What is equally shocking is that people still seem so unconcerned about the very concrete threats to their own privacy. And that others still tend to concentrate on the personalities of the leakers rather than the information they have exposed, or the personalities of the journalists writing about them. Who cares if Glenn Greenwald to some comes across as a bit of a jerk? As Edward Snowden has been stressing time and again, it doesn’t matter whether we like or dislike the journalists, the whistleblowers, the activists. What matters is what they are telling us. And what their treatment at the hands of people in power says about the societies we live in. And what it says about how safe we ourselves are.
If we think it through to the end, then the inescapable consequence of what we have learned is that we need to support those telling us the truth, especially when others aggressively try to keep them from doing so by infringing their rights to “privacy, association and freedom from illegal searches”. Because these are our rights to. We cannot take these rights for granted and fail to position ourselves with those who help expose whatever threatens our rights. Once we understand that, perhaps more of us will start protesting by whichever small means we have at our fingertips.