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  • Published in Opinion
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Norman Solomon writes on how British and US governments are assaulting freedom of the press by targetting journalists and whistleblowers

Each in its own way, the British and U.S. governments are assaulting freedom of the press. On one side of the Atlantic, officials insist on smashing a newspaper’s hard drives and proclaim that journalists are fair game for monitoring of their phone logs because “nobody should be above the law.” On the other side of the ocean, the FBI uses what it calls National Security Letters to obtain journalists’ call records, while the U.S. Department of Justice declares that a whistleblower’s disclosures “may be viewed as more pernicious than the typical espionage case where a spy sells classified information for money.”

Different styles, different laws, and very similar mentalities in high places. After we strip away the rhetoric and euphemisms, what’s left is unvarnished hostility toward independent journalism. That hostility reflects a keen understanding that investigative reporting and whistleblowing are vital to each other - and both are vital to the informed consent of the governed.

As my colleague Marcy Wheeler and I wrote last month in The Nation magazine ('The Government War Against Reporter James Risen'), governmental efforts to suppress whistleblowing are all about anti-democratic restrictions on the flow of information.

“The absurd pretense of merely wanting to ‘protect’ classified information hardly began with the Obama presidency. While publicly abhorring classified leaks, every administration in memory has dispensed large quantities of self-serving classified leaks - especially to journalists with compliant records of propagating authorized plants. But the customary gap between pretense and reality has grown into a canyon under Obama.”

With its claim that whistleblowing is apt to be worse than spying for a foreign power, we noted, the U.S. government “implicitly views the people of the United States as a potential enemy force - to be deprived of key information - an outlook that treats whistleblowers as hostile agents.”

Authorities who want to stifle democracy take double-barreled aim at journalists and whistleblowers. Since publication of his 2006 book State of War - which included information about a dumb and dangerous CIA scheme that provided flawed nuclear-weapons blueprints to Iran - New York Times reporter James Risen has been under threat of imprisonment for refusing to testify against his alleged source, former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling.

The indictment of Sterling includes seven counts under the 97-year-old Espionage Act, a favorite tool of the Obama government - which has used the Act nine times, far more often than all other administrations combined. In addition, many whistleblowers face protracted harassment and threats without ever being formally charged with a crime.

Consider this recent statement by New York Times reporter David Barstow, who has won the Pulitzer Prize three times:

“The relentless and by all appearances vindictive effort by two administrations to force Jim Risen into betraying his sources has already done substantial and lasting damage to journalism in the United States. I’ve felt the chill first hand. Trusted sources in Washington are scared to talk by telephone, or by email, or even to meet for coffee, regardless of whether the subject touches on national security or not. My fellow investigative reporters commiserate about how we’re being forced to act like drug dealers, taking extreme precautions to avoid leaving any digital breadcrumbs about where we’ve been and who we’ve met.”

For press freedom, grim parallel universes are festering in the United States and Great Britain. While British police officials insist that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) authorises the surveillance of journalists, the U.S. Justice Department asserts “the longstanding common-law rule that reporters have no privilege to refuse to provide direct evidence of criminal wrongdoing by confidential sources.”

Amid such dire trends, public education and effective organizing are essential. The process needs to include building strong international coalitions and joint work among activists for freedom of the press. That’s why I’m looking forward to the “Journalism, Whistleblowing and the Security State” programme coming up November 20 at the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research.

Details about the event are below. I hope to see you there!

Journalism, whistleblowing and the security state

Presented by Birkbeck Institute for Social Research in collaboration with Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and Media Reform Coalition

Thursday, 20 November 2014 at 6 p.m.
Room B04, Birkbeck Main Building
University of London

This forum will hear from a delegation that includes whistleblowers from the GCHQ, NSA, FBI and U.S. State Department. 

  • Katharine Gun, a former translator for the GCHQ. In 2003, she leaked to the Observer newspaper a top-secret memorandum concerning a National Security Agency operation to bug the United Nations offices of six countries regarded as swing votes that could determine whether the U.N. Security Council approved the invasion of Iraq. 
  • Matthew Hoh, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and former US embassy representative in Afghanistan who became the highest-ranking U.S. official to publicly renounce policy in Afghanistan in 2009.
  • Coleen Rowley, an attorney and former FBI special agent who was among the first to expose some of the agency’s pre-9/11 failures, and was one of three whistleblowers named as Time Magazine’s persons of the year in 2002.
  • Norman Solomon is the coordinator of , co-founder of and the author of a dozen books on media and public policy including War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.
  • J. Kirk Wiebe is a retired National Security Agency whistleblower who worked at the agency for 36 years until October 2001. Since then, he has made several key public disclosures regarding the NSA’s massive surveillance programmes.

The forum will be chaired by Dr Justin Schlosberg from the Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies at Birkbeck.

This event is free and open to all, but booking is essential. Reserve your place online.

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