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The United States Government Actually Really Hates Press Freedom

How can the media serve as a watchdog, speak truth to power, and look out for the public’s best interest if journalists and their sources are feeling intimidated by the federal government?

The government is rarely, if ever, transparent or honest about its true intentions. From the reasons stated for going to war (“to defend freedom” or to “fight terror“) to the reasons given for why domestic surveillance is needed (“to make sure the American people are safe“), the public is given an official narrative; but the true – and often far less benevolent – aims of those in power tend to make themselves known in some form or fashion eventually. Take Ferguson, Missouri on August 12, 2014; the US government agreed to a police request to institute a 37 square mile no-fly zone for 12 days. The official reason given for having the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) restrict airspace was due to a police helicopter being fired upon. Some weeks later, on November 2, 2014; the Associated Press published a story revealing that, after submitting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, it was able to obtain recordings of conversations between FAA personnel which confirmed that the no-fly zone was requested for the sole purpose of keeping the media out. It was also revealed that there was no incident report of shots fired at a police helicopter at all. This is just one of the latest attempts of federal and/or local government officials to mislead the public with an official narrative while concealing their true motives. It is also a blatant attack on press freedoms, which are protected by the very first amendment of the constitution. There are also several videos that went viral showing police directly targeting journalists with arrests, force and tear gas canisters. This wouldn’t be the first time the government actively sought to shut down press freedom and probably won’t be the last. There are numerous examples of this happening in the past and it doesn’t matter who is in the White House – it is institutional.

The government has several ways it can control the narrative and one way is by simply taking charge of the editorial process altogether. A good example of this is the collection of leaked emails between former LA Times national security reporter Ken Dilanian and a CIA media spokesperson. The emails show Dilanian checking in with the CIA spokesperson to get approval on news stories he intended to publish about the CIA – even admitting to wanting the story to have a very decidedly pro CIA tone when reporting on drone strikes. The article goes on to make a broader point in regards to just how cozy national security reporters seem to be with the government agencies. There are other times when the government has been keen on skipping middle men altogether and producing its own content to be planted in newspapers and on television. The Bush (W.) administration reportedly just prepackaged stories for domestic consumption. This nearly 10 year old Democracy Now! clip features two “news stories” which are essentially government created infomercials for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the second Iraq war.

In 2005, when James Risen and Eric Lichtblau broke the story about the Bush Administration illegally wiretapping US citizens, what wasn’t initially known was that the New York Times suppressed the story for an entire year. The White House put pressure on the New York Times not to run the story in 2004, citing the usual “national security” concerns, and the paper completely acquiesced. It is likely the 2004 election had a lot to do with this. Had it not been for the imminent release of a book written by James Risen that discussed the wiretapping in detail, who knows whether the New York Times would not still be blocking the publication of the story to this day. Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) wrote a succinct article on this issue here, which also touched on the broader implications of having a subservient press. James Risen would eventually find himself in deeper trouble. The same book that contained information on the illegal spying by the Bush administration also contained information about Operation Merlin – a covert CIA operation to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program. Instead of disrupting the program, the operation backfired and ended up giving Iran a blueprint on how to make a nuclear bomb, if ever they so desired. Probably due to utter embarrassment of failure (although they won’t admit that), the government was not very happy that this information leaked and found its way into Risen’s book. To this day, James Risen is threatened with imprisonment if he does not reveal his source – something he continuously refuses to do.

Reporters half the world away are not exempt from the US government’s insatiable appetite to have complete control over the narrative. During the war in Iraq, it was widely reported that US forces targeted Iraq TV, Al Jazeera’s station and reporters in hotels because officials disliked their wartime coverage. A story many people may have missed was that of Abdulelah Haider Shaye, a Yemeni journalist jailed for exposing a 2009 US tomahawk cruise missile attack on the village of al-Majalah that killed 41 people, mostly women and children. Initially, the Yemeni government took responsibility for the strike, but Wikileaks documents would later reveal that it was indeed a US drone strike. In August 2010, Shaye was arrested and tried in what many human rights organizations considered to be a kangaroo court with trumped up terrorism charges. Shaye was sentenced to five years in prison, but served only 34 days until he was set to be pardoned by President Ali Abdullah Saleh. That was until President Saleh got a call from President Obama discouraging him from issuing the pardon. This Democracy Now! interview with Jeremy Scahill and Rooj Alwazir goes in depth on Shaye’s situation and the extent to which the Obama administration will go to suppress information (in this instance, on US war crimes) by attacking press freedoms.

When President Obama made a statement on Ferguson last August, he said that “police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.” So while it sounds like he champions press freedoms, the reality is the complete opposite. Sally Buzbee, Associated Press Washington Bureau Chief, outlined eight ways the Obama administration has been blocking access to information. All of her points are worth reading, but the one that stood out was number five:

“Day-to-day intimidation of sources is chilling. AP’s transportation reporter’s sources say that if they are caught talking to her, they will be fired. Even if they just give her facts, about safety, for example. Government press officials say their orders are to squelch anything controversial or that makes the administration look bad.” (emphasis mine)

Other journalists have echoed this sentiment. Former CBS investigative correspondent Sharyl Attkisson sat down for a very interesting interview with Larry King on her experience with harassment, surveillance, and intimidation on behalf of the Obama administration (and the news editor self-censorship at the behest of the administration). James Risen calls Obama “the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.”

Glenn Greenwald wrote a must-read article regarding the inconsistencies of the Obama administration when it comes to leaks – pointing out that the Obama administration hates leaks that show illegality or wrongdoing on behalf of the administration but loves those leaks (that come from the administration itself) that make it look good. Chelsea Manning leaked visual evidence of US war crimes (among other things) and was sentenced to 35 years in prison while Edward Snowden blew the whistle exposing an illegal and invasive surveillance state and was charged with three felonies, two of which come under the Espionage Act. Compare this to the so-called “good” leaks, where the administration handed over classified information to Hollywood filmmakers for a movie about the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

President Obama has invoked the Espionage Act a total of eight times in an effort to silence journalists and their sources from reporting on stories the administration would rather keep quiet. In each of the eight cases, information was leaked that showed the true intentions of government agencies which contradicted the official narrative after much time and energy went into crafting a benign, ‘feel good’, and easily digestible narrative for public consumption. The Obama administration, as well as several administrations before it, is not truly interested in a free press. And while the Obama administration’s attacks on the press have arguably been the most egregious, this does not absolve journalists from being too cozy with those in positions of power and self-censoring stories to maintain access. In the Committee to Protect Journalists scathing report on the issue, Scott Shane, national security reporter at the New York Times said:

Most people are deterred by those leaks prosecutions. They’re scared to death. There’s a gray zone between classified and unclassified information, and most sources were in that gray zone. Sources are now afraid to enter that gray zone. It’s having a deterrent effect. If we consider aggressive press coverage of government activities being at the core of American democracy, this tips the balance heavily in favor of the government.” (emphasis mine)

How can the media serve as a watchdog, speak truth to power, and look out for the public’s best interest if journalists and their sources are feeling intimidated by the federal government? This is not supposed to happen in a democracy. Perhaps the undermining of so-called democracy is another one of those true intentions that the US government doesn’t want you to know about.

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