The American journalism trade is breathing a collective – but premature and, in many cases, grossly hypocritical – sigh of relief today. A military judge has found Bradley Manning guilty of many crimes, but “aiding the enemy” isn’t one of them.
Had the judge found Manning guilty of aiding the enemy, she would have set a terrible precedent. For the first time, an American court – albeit a military court – would have said it was a potentially capital crime simply to give information to a news organization, because in the internet era an enemy would ultimately have been able to read what was leaked.
However, if journalism dodged one figurative bullet, it faces many more in this era. The ever-more-essential field of national security journalism was already endangered. It remains so. The Obama administration’s war on leaks and, by extension, the work of investigative reporters who dare to challenge the most secretive government in our lifetimes, has been unrelenting.
The Manning verdict had plenty of bad news for the press. By finding Manning guilty of five counts of espionage, the judge endorsed the government’s other radical theories, and left the journalism organization that initially passed along the leaks to the public, Wikileaks, no less vulnerable than it had been before the case started. Anyone who thinks Julian Assange isn’t still a target of the US Government hasn’t been paying attention; if the US can pry him loose from Ecuador’s embassy in London and extradite him, you can be certain that he’ll face charges, too, and the Manning verdict will be vital to that case.
The military tried its best to make life difficult for journalists covering the Manning trial, but activists – not traditional journalists – were the ones who fought restrictions most successfully. Transcripts weren’t provided by the government, for example. Only when the Freedom of the Press Foundation crowd-sourced a court stenographer did the public get a record, however flawed, of what was happening.
That public included most of the press, sad to say. Only a few American news organizations (one is the Guardian’s US edition) bothered to staff the Manning trial in any serious way. Independent journalists did most of the work, and did it as well as it could be done under the circumstances.
The overwhelmingly torpid coverage of this trial by traditional media has been yet another scandal for the legacy press, which still can’t seem to wrap its collective brain around the importance of the case, and especially its wider context. National security journalist Jeremy Scahill summed it up after the verdict when he told Democracy Now: “We’re in a moment when journalism is being criminalized.”
For those who want to tell the public what the government is doing with our money and in our name, there are new imperatives. Governmental secrecy, surveillance and the systematic silencing of whistleblowers require updated methods for journalists and journalism organizations of all kinds. Americans pursuing this craft have to understand the risks and find countermeasures.
That is not enough. The public needs to awaken to the threat to its own freedoms from the Obama crackdown on leaks and, by extension, journalism and free speech itself. We are, more and more, a society where unaccountable people can commit unspeakable acts with impunity. They are creating a surveillance state that makes not just dissent, but knowledge itself, more and more dangerous. What we know about this is entirely due to leakers and their outlets. Ignorance is only bliss for the unaccountable.
The Executive Branch fought for that ruling — and is now celebrating.”We agree with the decision,” said a Justice Department spokesman. “We are examining the next steps in the prosecution of this case.” The Risen case, and potentially many others, are now under the ominous shadow of the Appeals Court’s pronouncement: ” There is no First Amendment testimonial privilege, absolute or qualified, that protects a reporter from being compelled to testify ” in criminal proceedings.”
At the Freedom of the Press Foundation, co-founder Trevor Timm calls the court ruling “the most significant reporter’s privilege decision in decades” and asserts that the court “eviscerated that privilege.” He’s not exaggerating. Press freedom is at stake.
Journalists who can be compelled to violate the confidentiality of their sources, or otherwise go to prison, are reduced to doing little more than providing stenographic services to pass along the official story. That’s what the White House wants.
The federal Fourth Circuit covers the geographical area where most of the U.S. government’s intelligence, surveillance and top-level military agencies — including the NSA and CIA — are headquartered. The ruling “pretty much guts national security journalism in the states in which it matters,” Marcy Wheeler writes.
That court decision came seven days after the Justice Department released its “News Media Policies” report announcing “significant revisions to the Department’s policies regarding investigations that involve members of the news media.” The report offered assurances that “members of the news media will not be subject to prosecution based solely on newsgathering activities.” (Hey thanks!) But the document quickly added that the government will take such action “as a last resort” when seeking information that is “essential to a successful investigation or prosecution.”
Translation: We won’t prosecute journalists for doing their jobs unless we really want to.
Over the weekend, some news accounts described Friday’s court decision as bad timing for Attorney General Eric Holder, who has scrambled in recent weeks to soothe anger at the Justice Department’s surveillance of journalists. “The ruling was awkwardly timed for the Obama administration,” the New York Times reported. But the ruling wasn’t just “awkwardly timed” — it was revealing, and it underscored just how hostile the Obama White House has become toward freedom of the press.
News broke in May that the Justice Department had seized records of calls on more than 20 phone lines used by Associated Press reporters over a two-month period and had also done intensive surveillance of a Fox News reporter that included obtaining phone records and reading his emails. Since then, the Obama administration tried to defuse the explosive reaction without actually retreating from its offensive against press freedom.
At a news conference two months ago, when President Obama refused to say a critical word about his Justice Department’s targeted surveillance of reporters, he touted plans to reintroduce a bill for a federal shield law so journalists can protect their sources. But Obama didn’t mention that he has insisted on a “national security exception” that would make such a law approximately worthless for reporters doing the kind of reporting that has resulted in government surveillance — and has sometimes landed them in federal court.
Obama’s current notion of a potential shield law would leave his administration fully able to block protection of journalistic sources. In a mid-May article — headlined “White House Shield Bill Could Actually Make It Easier for the Government to Get Journalists’ Sources” — the Freedom of the Press Foundation shed light on the duplicity: As a supposed concession to press freedom, the president was calling for reintroduction of a 2009 Senate bill that “would not have helped the Associated Press in this case, and worse, it would actually make it easier for the Justice Department to subpoena journalists covering national security issues.”
Whether hyping a scenario for a shield law or citing new Justice Department guidelines for news media policies, the cranked-up spin from the administration’s PR machinery does not change the fact that Obama is doubling down on a commitment to routine surveillance of everyone, along with extreme measures specifically aimed at journalists — and whistleblowers.
The administration’s efforts to quash press freedom are in sync with its unrelenting persecution of whistleblowers. The purpose is to further choke off the flow of crucial information to the public, making informed “consent of the governed” impossible while imposing massive surveillance and other violations of the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments. Behind the assault on civil liberties is maintenance of a warfare state with huge corporate military contracts and endless war. The whole agenda is repugnant and completely unacceptable.
Norman Solomon is the author of many books, including “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death,” which has been adapted into a documentary film. For more information, go to: http://www.normansolomon.com
Bradley Manning‘s Attorney David Coombs argues a motion in front of Judge Denise Lind at Fort Meade, Md. July 15, 2013 (Art: Kay Rudin/RSN)
Judge Denise Lind did not dismiss the “Aiding the Enemy” charge against Bradley Manning, stating that the Army did present evidence that Manning should have known, based on his training, that the enemy would be able to access the information he released to Wikileaks. She also stated that evidence was presented that Manning did know that the enemy could use the SIGACTS (mapping of incidents in a region) he leaked in the same manner that the Army uses them.
Judge Lind read into the record the evidence that she determined met the elements for the charge. If the Judge gives weight to that evidence when she enters her final verdict at the conclusion of the case, it does not look good for Manning or Press Freedom in America. The result would be chilling for whistleblowers or anyone who publishes information on the internet that could be used by the “enemy.”
Manning has already pleaded guilty to illegal use of information that he had the right to access. The chilling issue here is that with no contact with the enemy, Manning could serve life in prison without the possibility for parole. Bradley Manning did not give the information to an enemy of the United States, he gave it to the media.
Even if you don’t believe Wikileaks is the media, Judge Lind asked the Army on two occasions the following: If the documents were released to The New York Times and not Wikileaks would you still have brought the same charges? The Army’s response on both occasions was “Yes Ma’am.” So precedent that would be set here with a guilty verdict is that providing information to any media organization can result in a conviction for aiding the enemy.
Where is the line? How often have we all crossed it?
n the half decade since the beginning of the economic crisis, global press freedom has declined, and the EU has been no exception to this trend. Reporting on a new survey on press freedom, Jennifer Dunham and Zselyke Csaky find that Greece and Hungary have experienced large declines in press freedom in recent years, with Lithuania, Latvia and Spain also seeing falls. They write that the economic crisis has exacerbated deep-rooted problems across Europe’s media environments leading to a decline in print media circulation and diversity, as well as a greater concentration of media ownership.
Each year in May, Freedom House, a Washington, D.C.–based institute that specializes in research on global democracy, issues a report on the condition of press freedom around the world. The most significant—and disturbing—finding of Freedom of the Press 2013: A Global Survey of Media Independence was that the proportion of the global population that enjoys a free press continued to decline in 2012, falling to less than one in six, its lowest level in over a decade. The press freedom score in the European Union (EU), traditionally one of the world’s best-performing regions, also fell victim to this negative trend, with a further drop in the regional average and declines in both the old member states and those that joined the bloc in 2004 or later.
The year 2012 featured a notable deterioration in Greece and more moderate declines in Spain and other nations. This comes on the heels of a steep decline in Hungary’s score in recent years, and ongoing problems in Italy, Latvia, and Lithuania. As governments and media sectors felt the impact of the economic crisis that began in 2008, the state-run and private media suffered staff and salary cuts, declines in advertising revenue, and even the closure of outlets. This in turn had the effect of exacerbating existing problems, such as declining print circulation, the concentration of media ownership, decreasing print media diversity, and expanding influence on content by political or business interests.
Figure One – Average Press Freedom Scores in the EU, 2008–12
Scores are on a scale of 0–100, with 0 as best and 100 as worst. Categories: Free (0-30), Partly Free (31-60), and Not Free (61-100).
Greece’s score decline was the largest in the region in 2012. It fell from 30 to 41 on the survey’s 100-point scale, triggering a change in the country’s press freedom status, from Free to Partly Free. (The third category in the three-tiered system is Not Free.) While Greek society as a whole suffered from economic and political turmoil, the Greek media endured widespread staff cutbacks and some closures of outlets. Journalists also faced heightened legal and physical harassment and pressure from owners or politicians to toe a certain editorial line. These factors damaged the media’s ability to perform their watchdog role and keep citizens adequately informed about election campaigns, austerity measures, corruption, and other critical issues.
In one prominent example, journalist Kostas Vaxevanis was arrested and charged with violation of privacy for publishing the so-called Lagarde List of prominent Greek citizens who had transferred funds to Swiss bank accounts, allegedly to avoid paying taxes in Greece. Although he was initially acquitted, he currently faces a retrial. Furthermore, there were cases of politically motivated firings and suspensions at both state and private media. Journalists were physically attacked while covering protests against government-imposed austerity measures, and targeted by the far-right Golden Dawn party.
The media environment in Spain has also suffered as a result of the economic crisis and a related series of austerity measures, with its score declining from 24 to 27 points in Freedom of the Press 2013—still in the Free range. Media diversity was affected as the advertising market contracted and a number of outlets closed, cut staff, or reduced salaries. Since 2008, 57 media outlets have closed, around one-sixth of the country’s journalists have lost their jobs, and those who remain receive only about half their precrisis salaries. Público, a left-leaning daily aimed at younger readers, stopped printing and switched to an online-only format in February 2012, leaving El País as the only major left-leaning newspaper in print. In addition, several journalists and staff at RTVE, the state-owned broadcaster, were removed aftervoicing criticism of the government’s controversial austerity policies. These developments raise significant concerns about political influence over content and a lack of diverse viewpoints in the mainstream media.
Latvia’s score has fallen to 28, three points shy of the Partly Free category. Declining advertising revenues since 2008 have caused media outlets’ budgets to shrink, resulting in tabloidization and the use of recycled content. Forced to search for new sources of income, some outlets have engaged in the questionable practice of “hidden advertising,” in which paid content is improperly disguised as news. While the country’s economic recovery has accelerated in the past two years, media ownership is becoming increasingly concentrated. Apart from economic problems, political interference in editorial policies has raised concerns, and the country is battling a growing trend of violence against journalists. The 2010 murder of newspaper owner Grigorijs Ņemcovs remains unsolved, and last year another journalist reporting on corruption and organized crime was badly beaten and shot at.
Figure Two – Largest Score Changes in the EU, 2008–12
Latvia’s Baltic neighbor, Lithuania, was also severely hit by the economic crisis, and its media sector suffered similar setbacks, though it is still ranked comfortably in the Free category. While the economy is currently performing well, Lithuania’s media and advertising sectors have not yet caught up. Media ownership has grown more concentrated over the last several years, and the industry’s recovery has been hampered by rising taxes on media outlets. Banks are barred by law from owning media, but many institutions work around those restrictions by maintaining media holdings through intermediaries, and newspapers controlled by financial institutions often demonstrate bias toward their owners. A number of politicians also have ownership stakes in media outlets.
Figure Three – Press Freedom Scores for Selected Countries, 2008–12
Italy did not suffer a decline in score for 2012, but it has been a regional outlier since 2008, when it fell into the Partly Free range due in large measure to the disproportionate influence of one man—then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi—over the country’s media. Berlusconi is a major private media owner, and his political position gave him control of the state-owned media as well, including influence over the appointment of directors and key journalists. While his resignation in November 2011 effectively decreased media concentration, Italy’s score did not improve significantly. It remained at 33 in 2012, with a Partly Free status, due in part to pressures from the economic crisis. Working conditions for journalists have become difficult in recent years; those with a full-time contract constitute only 19 percent of the workforce, and there is a significant pay gap between professional and freelance journalists. Those hoping to work full-time for one of the major outlets need a license from the journalists’ association, the Ordine dei Giornalisti, and obtaining one entails a lengthy and costly procedure. Other problems include the influence of political parties over nominations to the public broadcaster and the regulatory authority. This infamous phenomenon is called lottizzazione, or “dividing the spoils” between parties, and has long plagued Italian politics. Journalists also face physical threats or attacks from organized crime networks. In one case, investigative journalist Roberto Saviano has lived under 24-hour police protection since publishing the book Gomorrah, about the Neapolitan mafia, in 2006.
Hungary also avoided further score declines in 2012, but it fell precipitously over the previous three years—from a Free environment with a score of 21 in 2009 to Partly Free with a score of 36 in 2011. And as in Italy, the problems in Hungary cannot be attributed to economic factors alone. Press freedom has eroded in the legal and political areas under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who took office in 2010. His government adopted a new media law that provided for content restrictions and heavy fines; evidence emerged of a politically motivated licensing procedure that caused a critical radio station to lose its frequencies; and reports of censorship and self-censorship increased, especially at the public broadcasters. A series of rulings by the country’s Constitutional Court and legal amendments to meet objections from the European Commission have mitigated the impact of the government’s initiatives. For example, most of the content requirements in the media law have been removed, and a more balanced appointment procedure has been introduced for the head of the Media Authority. Moreover, the critical radio station, Klubradio, got back its frequency after an almost three-year court battle. Nevertheless, several problematic legal provisions remain in place. Media outlets (including online and print) still have to register with the Media Authority, for instance, and they can still receive large fines for violating human dignity or “discriminating against any nation.”
The relatively young democracies of the EU’s east and south have endured the worst press freedom setbacks in recent years, but even leaders of the democratic world like the United Kingdom are not without problems. The country’s libel laws heavily favor the plaintiff, resulting in significant “libel tourism,” though reforms enacted in 2013 appear to be a step in the right direction. Press freedom advocates are less satisfied with the conclusions of the November 2012 Leveson report, which suggested the adoption of statutory press regulations to solve the ethical crisis revealed by a scandal over illicit phone hacking by journalists. The use of superinjunctions also poses a threat to freedom of expression; these court-issued gag orders are an excessively powerful tool in the hands of those who can afford the legal expertise to secure them. Another issue that sets the United Kingdom apart from the best-performing European countries is the persistence of occasional attacks and threats against journalists, especially in Northern Ireland.
The economic crisis has shed light on, and often exacerbated, deep-rooted problems in the media environments of Europe. These include the cozy relationships between politicians and media owners, government hostility toward critical reporting, and violence against journalists in the course of their work. However, the EU still easily outperforms the world’s other regions, and the recent decline in press freedom has been recognized by European policymakers. As governments contemplate an appropriate response, journalists across Europe are already turning to new media as an outlet for their work. The proliferation of digital media—whether online versions of newspapers, purely web-based news organizations, internet broadcasters, or individual blogs—serves to counteract the contraction of the print sector and often frees journalists from the restrictions and conflicting interests of large public or commercial institutions. In addition to addressing the problems affecting the media offline, policymakers will need to ensure that the legal, political, and economic freedom of online journalism is adequately protected, so that it can evolve into a robust alternative to traditional sources of unbiased information and in-depth investigative reporting on the key issues facing the public.
This image, courtesy of Reporters Without Borders, rates countries based on the state of freedom of the press. Many criteria are used, including violence against journalists to legislative measures to curb press freedoms. A zoomable map can be found here. You can read the full report here. (World Press freedom Index)