A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Despite government crackdowns, journalism isn’t terrorism

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., May 22, 23 or 24

Pulitzer Prize-winning Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald – whose new book is “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State” – had his partner detained for nine hours at London’s Heathrow Airport, where his laptop, cell phone and other materials were seized.

Such government reactions are worsening.

Greenwald’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, said that British intelligence also destroyed computers at his newsroom to interfere with its reporting. The U.S. government declared Fox News’ James Rosen a “co-conspirator” under the Espionage Act in the case of leaks about North Korea; the Justice Department subpoenaed records for dozens of phone lines used by Associated Press journalists to find the source of a story about a failed attack by Yemeni militants; and Barrett Brown, a freelance contributor to Vanity Fair and other publications faced charges for using material from the hacker activist group Anonymous.

Elsewhere, Matt Rothschild, editor of Progressive magazine, was arrested for reporting on the arrest of a protestor at Wisconsin’s capitol; and Steven Eberhard, a freelancer for the Willis (Calif.) News, was arrested for photographing a demonstration where police reportedly warned protestors that when journalists show up, the first ones arrested would be media.

Also, “the U.S. military has repeatedly targeted and killed journalists, claiming that reporters are legitimate targets,” reported Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, a press advocacy group. “Washington imprisoned Al-Jazeera camera operator Sami al-Hajj for six years without a trial at Guantanamo. Documents released through WikiLeaks later revealed that a primary reason for holding al-Hajj was to try to extract information from him about Al-Jazeera’s newsgathering.”

Such reactions attack both news-gathering (illegally imposing prior restraint) and reporting (violating the 1st Amendment). My old union, The Newspaper Guild, strongly objected to the campaign.

“This administration is worse than that of (George W.) Bush,” said Guild President Bernie Lunzer. “We need to create more pressure. It’s getting pretty bad.”

The U.S. government “should be ashamed of” the example it is setting for the rest of the world, the Guild’s Executive Council added. “The public’s right to know is in grave jeopardy as journalists – locally, nationally and globally – face shocking levels of government interference and intimidation. The all-purpose excuse, ‘security concerns,’ is commonly used to silence journalists and trample the public’s right to know.”

Examining the Obama administration’s unprecedented number of prosecutions of government sources and seizures of journalists’ records, the Committee to Protect Journalists (which usually advocates for press freedoms abroad) found that those the government suspects of discussing classified information are subject to investigation, lie-detector tests, scrutiny of phone and email records and even surveillance by co-workers under a government “Insider Threat Program.”

On Capitol Hill, the bipartisan effort to pass a modest federal shield law for journalists stalled when California Democrat Dianne Feinstein wanted to define journalists as those who work for media employers. She said she’s concerned that “journalist” is so vague that the shield law could “…provide special privilege[s] to those who are not reporters.”

So, the “Free Flow of Information Act” last year passed the Senate Judiciary Committee 13-5, but hasn’t made it to the floor; in the House its companion legislation went to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations.

Journalism isn’t terrorism; authorities should be held accountable. But increasingly, if journalists report information that government wants to keep secret, they will be treated as criminals, spies or terrorists.

“Whenever the government says it wants to define what a reporter is or is not – and the public, outraged over something a reporter or news operation did or did not do demands licensing and enforceable codes of ethics – a huge red flag should be in everyone’s face,” said journalist and author Walt Brasch. “Not one part of the First Amendment determines who or what a reporter is, or what is or is not news. The Founding Fathers didn’t forget to include that; they deliberately didn’t want to include that. They believed government shouldn’t be making those decisions, and the news media – even the media that base their news upon lies and scandal --must be independent.”

Joseph Pulitzer’s 1907 retirement remarks, published in his St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said the press should “always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.”

That attitude is not real terrorism; that’s real journalism.

[PICTURED: Greenwald's book jacket.]

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