Is it a war on journalism, or a war on information?
December 6, 2013 Leave a comment
Josh Kitto is a senior at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and majors in journalism. We recently had a few drinks at a pub in Islington near the Guardian / Observer headquarters after the London premiere of Dirty Wars. We discussed freedom of information as a human right, a concept Josh ‘Kitten’ Kitto was very keen to discuss. Last night, independent journalist Jeremy Scahill intervened on Democracy Now! to explain the Obama administration’s “war on journalism”. But what is it exactly, and how does it play out? After debating that using journalists as targets of counter terrorism and playing the card of security trumping public interest was nothing new, and was, in fact, quite a repeated, cyclical pattern, especially in the UK, Josh and I continued the conversation over a 6 hours span. Here is the transcript.
(background: read our post on Freedom of information as a human right // Existentialism as humanism: the case of Bradley Manning // Journalism as terrorism: the case of Ali Anouzla)
“When the truth is obscured, it’s the screen that needs to be removed, not the finger pointing at it.”
Josh: Observation: Scahill could talk about a war on journalism without talking about himself and cottage cheese. Rania wrote up something yesterday, haven’t had a chance to read it yet, about research showing a third of journalists self-censor to prevent government observation … Also, as I realised when he was doing the Q&A, why does he talk about the CIA like it didn’t exist before 2001 and like Obama is the first ‘national security liberal’?
Sarah: Problem in counter-terrorism patterns is, whether you want it or not, there is a pre and a post 9/11. In 2002, the ECHR released new guidelines (PDF) and divided them as such as well. There is also when Emmerson got into play. So talking about CIA post 2001 is important because it fits a more legitimate pattern as far as the national discourse was on counter-terrorism and foreign policy… Which in this case, worse: counter-terrorism as foreign policy. On the issue of Obama being a national security liberal… It’s because it’s basically the touchstone of his policy and the way he conducts his entire executive authority. It’s also extended to such an outrageous extent – substituting legislation for edicts, etc – that no other president in recent history did.
Josh: One question that should be discussed is how different a war on journalism and individual journalists is. I’m thinking about how deeply embedded the media is in the national security state, and as seen with Leveson, in their relationships with the police.
Sarah: I think the whole current concept on war of journalism has re-emerged – and I say “re” because as I mentioned, it’s nothing new – when Glenn came up with the Snowden documents, and in this regard, I think Glenn has been targeted specifically, and considered a threat as a person. Problem is, Glenn didn’t do that in a vacuum. He’s a constitutional lawyer, he’s always been a fervent supporter of fundamental civil liberties, he’s taken on strong, landmark cases ever since law school. As an individual he made a job of pushing the envelope and as such I have tremendous respect for him. He’s clearly one those unconventional lawyers Emmerson was referring to. Now as a journalist he’s applying the same vision and same ethics, but without the disciplinarian framework of the law, and somehow without its protection as well. It was him and by extent his editor, Rusbridger, against the state apparatus. Much later, other newspapers in other countries joined in: El Pais, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, to name a few. But they did so in collaboration with Glenn. As critical as I am of Pierre Omidyar, I understand Glenn’s wish to branch out into a structure that will have him perform his own specific brand of journalism in an unconventional framework – we see that word again – in the aftermath of the NSA story. But through this story emerged the regular, more conventional patterns of a war on journalism: it was the very fact of reporting on national security that posed an issue. Because national security isn’t transparent and progressively stopped being accessible, journalists had to push the door open, through the use of repeated FOIAs and thorough investigations – sometimes covert. It’s not journalism that is the problem here; it’s the fact that journalism can no longer be done the way it should be because of implemented barriers. But instead of questioning national security itself, we criminalise journalists for “going too far”, for “threatening” the stability and security of the country. You don’t threaten any structure whatsoever by reporting on it. A journalist is merely a medium for the truth. When the truth is obscured, it’s the screen that needs to be removed, not the finger pointing at it.
But of course there are emblematic figures, like Glenn- and the question remains as to how many will stand up for one that has been brought down. I understand Glenn’s decision, but I think it would have been equally important to remain at The Guardian to make a stand that he and his team refuse to be intimidated. Is that what you think Scahill was referring to?
Josh: Umm…I think there is a difference between the criminalisation of information and how it is reported.
Sarah: True. Elaborate.
Josh: So in this War On Journalism, Scahill mentions Chelsea Manning and Aaron Swartz.Now…do they fall under the jurisdiction of free press protections? You’re the lawyer. Are they targeted by a national-security state that also has interests in maintaining a certain relationship with establishment media? Yes. So I am wondering if what we are seeing is in fact an attempt to restrict information rather than journalism as such. And that’s where cases like Greenwald’s come in.
“If this information is not made available precisely because no one wants it denounced, then it is incumbent to those who can somehow access this information to place it at our disposal.”
Sarah: The extreme particularity of Manning is that she was in the armed forces therefore did not fall under civilian jurisdiction. That’s an issue I wrote about before; she was tried in charges proper to the military commissions, whereas what was at the core of what she did was clear freedom-of-information, which is a human right enshrined in domestic law, therefore should have benefited from civilian protection. But she a) was enrolled b) accessed the information in her military capacity c) distributed the info in her military capacity, so she slipped from our grasp. It’s terribly deplorable. Military commissions are often assimilated to violations of the right to a fair trial. The specificity of having an armed forces whistleblower is a current war on terror issue, and the legal protection must be extended to them as well. It’s difficult.
As for Aaron Swartz, here’s the problem – I mentioned it before as well: it all depends on what and who we consider a journalist. Aaron wasn’t a journalist, but he accessed and redistributed information. Now, if said information is considered in the public interest, he should be protected by FoI – access to information, the corollary of freedom of information, is considered a human right as well. And in the era of WikiLeaks and online activists, the domain of information distribution and access has been widely enlarged, and not restricted to j-school degrees and a NYPD issued press pass… Information distribution is not journalism, it’s the reporting that makes it journalism, ie. what you make of said information. Example: Scahill used Wikileaks as a source for his investigations on JSOC. Wikileaks is the means, Scahill is the medium. In assimilating Swartz and online information to the war on journalism, he’s extending the scope of said war to the war on information itself. But it’s intertwined.
By what I mean, is that you take a journalist, working for whatever company / structure / outlet, reporting on national security, but said journalist can’t access information: it’s classified, it’s under gag order, it’s protected by security interest, it’s military material, etc. any journalist would push forward if they have the sense they’re onto something: they will file FOIAs – which is already in the current climate considered radical – and yeah, they will look to alternative sources, of course. And WikiLeaks allows them to access this information to do their job. Now whether or not WikiLeaks can distribute all of that information is about the jurisprudence on public interest, but in the current situation, when you know and have been a witness of unlawful arrests, killings, strikes, intervention – when you’re investing the gross, systematic scope of human rights and constitutional liberties violations, you are in public interest to denounce it, it’s your responsibility as a journalist. If this information is not made available precisely because no one wants it denounced, then it is incumbent to those who can somehow access this information to place it at our disposal.
It’s a war on the information that is being made available to the journalists they’re fighting against. And yes, the only way not to have a war on journalism obvious and totalitarian, you prove that all your regular news outlets are out there and working as usual. BBC, Daily Mail, CNN, NBC. You say that Chuck Todd is totally free to do and say what he pleases, and you try to discredit the investigative heads that tear at the curtains. I think that’s what Scahill meant when he said Obama was trying to align every type of journalism to the NBC model. As in making journalism a talking head profession as opposed to having an inherent investigative / activist component. I’d contest the “activist” part though.
Josh: Ha. Well. Quite. So what I am also interested in is whether there is this genuine realignment in journalism, where ownership and traditional outlet decline is exacerbating government curtailing and therefore allowing for a historical “War on journalism”, or whether it ebbs and flows as part of the national security state’s inherent desire to curtail and censor – i.e. attributing a particular motive to a ‘war on journalism’, rather than seeing it as part of the state’s inherent desire to define what ‘acceptable limits’ are.
Sarah: So you mean the war on journalism is not necessarily linked to national security interest but just media control in general?
Josh: Well I’m wondering if it’s both. I think what we’re both doubting is whether there is this historical moment of a ‘War on Journalism’? From different perspectives of course. And it is hard to deny that post 9/11 there is a legal and political expansion of security state and the limitations it imposes. Whether it equals a symmetrical ‘War on Journalism’ I am less sure.
Sarah: My question to Scahill – all my questions are rhetorical – is whether he considers his situation, his and Glenn’s and to some extent Michael’s to be extraordinary, outstanding. If he believes they’ve been singled out specifically for their activities, in a specific context of targeting sore points in national security, or if he sees this moment as historical in the way history repeats itself. Again, we’ve seen this before. Has Scahill argued on specific points that made it defining? Journalism as terrorism existed before 9/11, in less clear terms, but that was because it was the action of releasing information that was the target, as whereas now, as we exposed, it’s how we access the information as well as its release. It follows the restriction pattern on the ATCSA 2001 – “possession of information on or about acts of terrorism” is just as criminal as actually carrying them out.
For the record before I went to London I asked Scahill if he had faced any issues at customs, because in that context I believed there might have been. If nothing happened, the question is about information rather than journalism, in this case. I think Emmerson’s comments at the hearing I was at on Tuesday may answer your questions. Jason is tackling it for AJAM, but here is a part of my write-up on his statement:
“The point of contention, which should be addressed by the Court in its deliberation, was whether the right to truth – accorded to the applicant receiving victim status – could be extended to the general public. If, in the Del Prada Rio v Spain case, the ECHR granted a personal right to truth to the applicant, the UN wishes for this to be extended to the collective in the name of freedom of information and access to information. The CIA high value target program can be traced back to a foreign policy of systematic violations and enforced disappearances dating back to Latin America in the early 1980s. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression said it clearly – “the right to truth is collective. Information is essential to a democratic system – in the context of human rights violations, there needs to be a clarification of the circumstances, of context, of policies, and of the institutional failures that let those happen in order to restore confidence in the system. The right to know what happened is fundamental for participatory decision-making in society.” It may appear counter-intuitive, Emmerson continued, “to conventional lawyers – but once it is recognized, every individual is entitled to invoke that right.” The exposure of grave and systematic violations can not be dependent on the willingness or the disposal of a victim to launch proceedings – the victim, or if deceased, their family, which can be found reluctant to seek judicial redress for various reasons. It is therefore up to the citizenry and specifically the members of the media to invoke the right to freedom of information in cases of systematic violations as to ensure the accountability of the guilty. The presence of the United Nations at the hearing was to be placed in a political and security context. It did not need to reaffirm the commitment to human rights law, embedded into the ECHR; it needs to address the global, international risk of being faced with constant classification of information in the face of important proceedings that need to establish the fundamental and non-derogating character of human rights. Emmerson insisted: “the success of initiatives to counter terrorism depends on persuading societies that democratic governments are committed to the rule of law and respecting human rights. To end impunity.” With a snark it was hard to conceal, he insisted it was “hard to win the hearts and minds” when horrible crimes are committed under the cloak of executive authority.”
“So is the national security state more its own branch now, acquiring its own interests, namely the curtailing of information?”
Josh: is it easier for the state to curtail specific journalists rather than information? If so (yes), does it need a ‘War on journalism’?
Sarah: The state – and I mean the US government first, UK second – tried to isolate and alienate specific journalists, yes, by discrediting not only their work but also their personality. Because this new emerging brand of journalism born out of blogging and online activity has basically made everyone a potential reporter, traditional journalists – in the way Feinstein would love to describe them – are not so happy with the competition, they deem their methods sloppy, illegitimate, whatever. The government conquers by dividing in this case, the way people are riling up against Glenn because the Snowden leaks were “unlawfully obtained” documents, they barely even needed to intervene. It was a shameful and pathetic thing to witness because whistleblowers have released documents forever and it would have been, as I said, irresponsible of Glenn to ignore what had been sent to him. So, the state is trying to pass them off as some sort of undereducated, rough rogues, just because their methods are supposedly unorthodox. Well, sometimes you gotta take the path less traveled.
Then there was this awful smear campaign against Glenn, you know, trying to make him pass as some sort of perverted creep associating him with a porn producer past, or questioning his values publicly, accusing him of “profiteering” off the leaks – and people were just too happy to follow down that trail because Glenn is coherent and consistent and his personality doesn’t bow down to public pressure; he has no PR firm around him, you can’t make him likeable, and there’s nothing worse than someone who’s always right! How fucking annoying is that? So the war on journalism is started by a state that claims to be a victim of isolated individuals with so-called anarchist ties that just want to ruin their country’s safety, and that’s where the UK parliament’s interrogation of Rusbridger comes in. It was terrifyingly Orwellian to watch, it literally made me shake, I was so uncomfortable watching it. I had Cold War, security-über-alles flashbacks. And then this creepy part where he’s asked if he “loves his country”? Doesn’t that remind you of the Bush-era policy of being with me or against me, or being told what is your nation’s interest as opposed to defining them for yourself as an informed citizen which – hey! – is the cornerstone of freedom of information: participatory democracy only works if you have an informed audience. So controlling the media is paramount to a police state because they get to decide what’s right and wrong, what’s safe and isn’t, and suddenly you have dissenting voices saying they’re the ones making us unsafe. That was also something said at the hearing, too. This war on journalism may be journalistic-specific because they undermine those attached to whistleblowers, but on the other hand seem to support those who sit quietly at the White House Correspondents’ dinner and clap approvingly. As opposed to imprisoning all journalists regardless of their assumed political leanings, recent investigations etc. so it may sound that they go after “activist journalists”, but in my view, if you’re a journalist, in a way, you are already an activist.
Josh: I’m wondering then if a lot of it comes down to the ‘motivations’ of the national security state. So where my doubts come in is when this declaration of war on journalists began exactly. Does it have a specific ‘motive’ as in the Cold War or is it more to do with, as you said earlier, the conflation of national security with counter terrorism? And in many ways the executive (in the US) always has that conflation with foreign policy. So is the national security state more its own branch now, acquiring its own interests, namely the curtailing of information?
Sarah: Scahill’s position confuses me in that regard, hence why I wanted to address it. I think we’re seeing the latter arriving. We’re not exactly there yet, because there is relative possibility of freedom on the judicial branch. But yes we’re seeing a rhetoric of national security interests trumping everything else, especially in regards to international rights – human and political rights (enunciated in the ICCPR – that the US didn’t ratify until 1992). There is nothing above the state, whose interests – supposedly for the safety of the collective – are a best bet to safeguard than collective rights in the name of progressive emancipation. That is very dangerous, when you start having a belligerent rhetoric calling your own citizens “enemies”, while your duty is to protect them unless they’re in clear violation of criminal law with malicious intent.
“A lot of the actions in the recent decade can be seen as a ‘historical moment’ of trying to draw and define the limits of the empire’s decline.”
Josh: Because there are different conclusions you could draw. So either there is this new independent branch of the state which is acquiring its own interests or there is this new kind of unaccountable branch which is being drawn under the executive’s control (JSOC/kill list). That’s not just a technical or semantic issue. Because you can see Scahill politicking at the Q&A with “I’m an American/America is supposed to be etc.” Now that may just be rhetoric. But I think there is an assumption that the US acts on a base imperial level, and that currently it has gone beyond its imperial means and limits. If the focus is on a war on particular journalists, where Scahill will be allowed to claim a personal victory in whatever way he defines it, then the focus is on returning the US to that base imperial level. If the focus is on information, and the new dimensions the national security state is expanding into (and the interests it is defining, namely controlling its own citizens as combatants), then the focus is a lot less narrow. And the question of US imperialism becomes different then, and a lot of the actions in the recent decade can be seen as a ‘historical moment’ of trying to draw and define the limits of the empire’s decline.
If that makes sense, then I’m sorry for sounding like a poncy academic.
Sarah: haha, no, I totally agree.
Josh: And in that sense I think the whole debate about a ‘war on journalists’ is defined by ‘relative democracy’. Is there is a perceived relative decline in the curtailing of freedom in reporting? I would say yes in many ways. Does it amount to a specific ‘war’ in which the national security state and reporting is in direct opposition? Not so sure.
Sarah: As I said yesterday this is a repeating pattern. It’s violent and blatant now and completely unavoidable and forcing people to take sides, to confront their own idea of what nation they want to live in, what protection they expect, and to what extent they’re going to go to have this “safety” enforced. We all have limits and thresholds; some of us are just more attuned to this kind of denial of civil liberties and intervened a while ago. For others, it took the detention of David Miranda. But you still see people defending Obama, because he’s a constitutional lawyer with a Nobel Peace Prize, therefore through some sort of warped definition, he can’t make the same mistakes Bush did or lower the US to the Egyptian level of press freedom. I had to argue with a girl the other day calling Glenn a criminal – not for his actions specifically, but for abating Snowden. I had to tell her that releasing this information so she could make up her own mind was literally Glenn’s job. Her reply? “We need to trust the state, and they give us enough information for us to decide what foreign policy we want”. Mmm girl, no. Quite the opposite, in fact.
So there is this whole collective denial that we finally have an educated man in office so he can’t screw us over, because he knows the difference between civil liberties and police state. Well turns out knowing where the line is drawn in the sand doesn’t mean you can’t cross it if you’re in an authoritative position to do so. A war, however, implies both parties know exactly where said line is, recognise it, and I’m worried it might actually be pushed back and forth constantly, or be strictly defined by personal ethics as opposed to an uniform code of conduct.
Josh: Michelle Alexander has made an interesting point, which is the links between the tradional domestic forms of surveillance and drones. And that the domestic and foreign security establishments are more intertwined (or put another way, counter terrorism as national security). More intertwined than ever.
Sarah: Again, I think that if we want to say there’s a war on journalism and not a war on information, it’s a specific type of journalism that is at war, the one that is relying 100% on an unrestrained freedom of information. And I guess Scahill sees himself in that vein? Do you consider him unconventional and unorthodox? I’ve followed him for a long long time, for almost as long as I’ve been doing this job, right after Kosovo, and he sounds pretty… Normal to me. But I think his own personal political views have come into play after the enforcement of counter terrorism laws post 2001 in which he must have gone, “okay, I need to take a stand.”
Josh: The first thing, absolutely. So what kind of journalism is being curtailed? Hmm…not quite sure which one. Because the most important journalism is not always the most ‘threatening’ to specific security interests as such. Do I consider him unorthodox compared to a Martha Gellhorn or a Marie Colvin, or even a John Pilger? Not as such. Pilger is probably threatening, but for different reasons.
Sarah: That’s my whole point – counter terrorism as national security, constantly. It’s not possible. It’s the post 9/11 world way of establishing security, and that’s just not a sustainable model. Thankfully – to some extent – the EU has control mechanisms and has tried to curtail terrorism way before that, and has been able to analyse the descent of the US into a massive security apparatus pretty accurately, until the UK, sneakily, made the same moves despite having been told off by the ECHR for an abusive number of petitions. They’re constantly derogating! Constantly! So, to me, the UK restricting freedom of information the way the US isn’t new to me. There is constant collusion between the two countries; if the US has taught the UK about deploying intelligence, the UK has definitely taught the US about controlling their own media. Can we, in that case, talk about radicalisation of journalism in response to restrained freedom of information? I’m using radicalisation knowingly, as a red flag.
Josh: Does this prevent the establishment of an independent ‘national security state’? In the UK I think you could argue the police have become a branch with an independent set of interests to the state, or rather ‘the establishment’. Like policing potential incitement rather than incitement.
Sarah: But even then – it’s the question that national security is superior to fundamental rights that is problematic because it’s making a return as a justifiable cause for violations. Security! Terrorism! Blah! And all of a sudden, everyone is supposed to be quiet and let the work be done, because The State Knows Best, whereas even in cases of possible derogations under Article 15 – they’re supposed to be made punctually for an established case of emergency, whereas now, as we pointed out, national security interest is not A policy, but THE policy.
Correct. ACLU just released this – assessing similarities between US and UK.
“Criminalisation of information for national security reasons is the first red flag step towards a control / police state.”
Josh: So there’s this shift in the state’s rationales on one hand. And on the other, I am wondering whether there has always been a hierarchy in journalism re: the state’s relationship with the media, in which certain reporting has always been subsumed.
Sarah: Potential – all doing everything pre-emptively. Pre-emptive strikes. Pre-emptive detention. Detention without charge. Pre-emptive censoring that becomes auto censoring. After a while you internalise those methods and you ask yourself if you’re doing the right thing before writing. It’s very pervasive when it permeates your own moral compass.
Josh: Where the interesting element of a ‘War on Journalism’ could come in is the fact that the Bush and Obama administrations have selectively leaked more than most. So then the issue would seemingly be what information and how it is reported that is the problem, rather than information as a whole getting out.
Sarah: Isn’t that the whole problem with WikiLeaks?
Sarah: And, as an extent, the way Pierre Omidyar – who must have known / supported the PayPal blockade – is now creating a new media venture while being on the team opposite WikiLeaks, which has been instrumental in Glenn and Scahill’s work. If we accept the premise that released information should be selective – my issue is, who gets to make that decision? In my view, this is the responsibility of the journalist, to decide what is in public interest and what isn’t; what he needs, and what he can accept to be kept in the dark.
Josh: It was the information dump that was the problem. The problem of course as so many mainstream journos were keen to point out was “BUT WE ALREADY KNEW THIS!!!” …..true? But that’s normally when the state selectively leaks that information. I mean it was interesting to see in Dirty Wars the official transcript by Obama expressing concern over freeing journalists in Yemen. But it wasn’t the information itself, rather how it is managed when it is revealed in something like a WikiLeaks dump, in these ‘informal’ institutions.
Sarah: But to go back to Emmerson – he insisted that transparency had to be complete in counter-terrorism operations “to restore the public’s faith in the system”. So… Maybe a complete database is better than having an oligarchy for the selection.
Josh: The Swartzian approach.
Sarah: Exactly. You can claim transparency because it was released, it was information. But was it ACCESSIBLE? If it wasn’t, it amounts to the same for the public. It takes a third party to jump in the trenches and dig, and that’s where journalism comes in. That’s why to me, if you don’t want to make a shitload of information available, I can accept it for as long as you won’t restrict journalistic access to it; if someone petitions for it, there is a motive of public interest. No journalist goes in for the sake of doing it; bottom line is to be read and understood. And we go back to what constitutes journalism, who can be a journalist and therefore obtain access.
Josh: What I think is interesting here is not necessarily specific journalists as the vehicle, because I don’t know if the national security state sees it as necessary to DECLARE WAR on them (any annoying journalist can be dealt with). I think it’s about the ownership of information, the complete database. I am going to write on media ownership soon, but my thing about Leveson is that the debate about media reform about ‘ownership’ of democratic structures in how information is relayed.
Sarah: So again, you’re not in favor of restricting access at all – otherwise there is an idea of selection that implies ownership or detention of information. And journalism would be analysis of said information rather than release. Right? Is that what Scahill meant by his reference to Swartz? I think this is where I actually confess I didn’t watch it entirely because I started twitching, stopped and went back to watching This Is England.
Josh: Hahaha. I’m not sure exactly. I think where I am coming from is maybe a division between journalism and information in terms of specific protections. I mentioned earlier the divide between assuming a base imperial level of the US and going beyond its means, or an expansion of the terms of the national security state, and how the former allows Scahill to define it in terms of individual journalist’ access. The latter is more about imperial decline etc. So if it is the latter rather than the former, does it require a different set of protections for information and not just ‘journalists’ who can selectively reveal? Annoying journalists can be dealt with, but Aaron Swartz and Chelsea Manning have to be “dealt with”.
Sarah: “Annoying journalists can be dealt with.” Look at you. Are you advocating enforced disappearance for Ezra Klein?
Josh: Ha. Well…
Sarah: In terms of protection… Of drafting / implementing a different set of protection… I don’t know. To me freedom of the press derives from freedom of information. And it was never questioned until information was criminalized. And it went back and forth. Usually criminalisation of information for national security reasons is the first red flag step towards a control / police state. It’s the main indicator. So there is an imperial aspect to it.
Josh: Does this freedom for information require protections for intermediaries alone then, or around a sort of communal protection of this information? The Swartz case is a good example of this debate. I would say that the question is not a war on individual journalists, but that the expansion of the national security state, and the state AS national security and counter-terrorism, has an innate capacity and need to control information by determining who can access and own it.
Sarah: And as such, emerged a more aggressive brand of journalism that was open in its defiance of state secrecy, which created an open conflict, specifically because those individuals used the very information the state intended to control.
Josh / @cromulentjosh Sarah / @K_isanasshole