By Janet Phelan
Julian Assange’s arrest in London today is only the most recent manifestation of a world wide attack on freedom of the press. Recent incidents in a growing number of countries have indicated a trend towards the dissolution of press freedoms in favor of the iron hand of the State.
A few of these incidents will be summarized below.
Press freedoms in Saudi Arabia are reported on the decline. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, apparently at the order of the Saudi Prince, is not an aberration in Saudi policy but an indication of a trend which has included beheadings and torture. Ironically, many of the arrests in Saudi Arabia have been done under a 2017 anti terrorism law. According to Freedom House, “State authorities have widely interpreted ‘terrorism’ to encompass a variety of nonviolent political, social, and religious offenses. In addition, oversight and enforcement power for counterterrorism measures was transferred from the Ministry of Interior to the Public Prosecution and the Presidency of the State Security, two newly established bodies that report directly to the king.”
The rest of the Middle East has not fared much better. Freedom House lists a handful of countries as “Partly Free”—in terms of media freedom, including Lebanon, Kuwait, Tunisia and Israel. Freedom House has designated the following countries as having no freedom of the press—Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Qatar, Iraq, Oman, Egypt, Libya, UAE, Palestine, Yemen, Bahrain, Iran and Syria.
Several of these countries had earned a “Partly Free” designation in 2012 and have since been downgraded to “Not Free.” It is also of interest that Israel received a designation of “Free” in 2012 and has since been downgraded to “Partly Free.”
Calling the condition of press freedom in Europe “dire,” a recent report from the Council of Europe stated that “Press freedom in Europe is more fragile now than at any time since the end of the Cold War.” High on the list of concerns as to the threats to press freedom is “impunity,” defined as routinely protecting “those responsible for violent crimes who deliberately target journalists for their work.” In other words, the hand of the State is seen working with impunity.
Of course, there are trouble spots in Europe, most notably Turkey and the Russian Federation. However, countries previously seen as carrying the banner of democracy are now falling under scrutiny for their attacks on the press. Case in point is France. In a 2017 report, Freedom House stated that “in recent years, defamation cases, intrusive new security laws, and editorial pressure on journalists by owners have contributed to concerns about decreasing media freedom.” In addition, a law which would have bolstered journalists’ rights to protect their sources was struck down recently by the Constitutional Court.
A controversial law was also passed recently empowering French judges to order the immediate removal of fake news from internet sites during election campaigns. We can thank French President Macron for this. The problem, of course, is that what is false and what is true is a heavily loaded political hot potato. Giving this power of determination to the government is a recipe for censorship.
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It should be noted that, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015, France passed an “anti-terrorism” law which pretty much destroyed any semblance of privacy for anyone. The law, which was dubbed “The Big Brother Act,” allows for electronic surveillance in private homes for anyone suspected of terrorism.
While Germany is largely lauded for its protection of press freedoms, there is a darker side emerging in Germany as well. A 2016 report from Reporters without Borders stated that “A new anti-whistleblower provision penalizes the handling of leaked data without ensuring adequate protection for investigative journalists as well as their sources.”
A 2018 bill set in motion the surveillance of foreign journalists in Germany. In addition, a 2017 law, which appeared on the surface to govern hate speech and online disinformation has raised concerns that it will result in “chilling” social media activities.
And what about the US, which appears to be the next stop for Julian Assange? In 2018, Reporters without Borders gave the US a ranking of 45 in press freedom, behind most of Western Europe, including France and Germany. However, any US journalist worth her salt will tell you that journalists are entirely free in the US to write about and debate “vetted” issues. It is when we stray out of the pen and into unapproved territory that the repercussions will start to be felt.
A few questions will serve to illuminate the breadth of the problem. Why is it that the press continues to behave as if our legal system is robust and healthy, even in the face of research indicating that at least two thirds of judges are on the take? Why is it that the US press is delicately averting its eyes to what is obviously a US military-corporate offensive biological weapons program? Why is the press silent about the fact that the US gives Israel billions of dollars in aid each year, earmarked for buying defensive weapons which do not work?
These are only three questions. I am sure there are many, many more. If our press lies, it lies through omission. Journalists today step over inconvenient facts as if they were plague ridden bodies. Like sheep, journalists gather around a vetted story and chew it to death. And indeed, if the situation of Julian Assange gives us any insight into the pitfalls confronting journalists today, it would be in terms of the danger of leaving the pen and striking out into the woods.
For this, we owe Assange a great debt. I personally owe Assange and WikiLeaks, for without the publication of the secret cables I would never have known that the US exported a biological weapons delivery system to other countries. The cables, at least the ones I have gone through so far, show definitively the exportation of a delivery system to Israel and to post-invasion Iraq and suggest the possibility that other countries also received this “gift of death.” If we are going to stop the slaughter of innocents, which so defined the twentieth century and has bled into the 21st, we will need to know everything those cables can teach us.
And if we are going to proceed into history as the leader of the free world, our leaders are going to have to cease and desist in efforts to intimidate, silence and criminalize reporters. Lies will only prop up a bully for so long. In order to reinstate our former greatness, we may, as a nation, have some unpleasant realities to accept. Killing or jailing the messenger is not an option.
Janet Phelan is an investigative journalist and author of the groundbreaking , EXILE. Her articles previously appeared in such mainstream venues as the Los Angeles Times, Orange Coast Magazine, Long Beach Press Telegram, etc. In 2004, Janet “jumped ship” and now exclusively writes for independent media. She is also the author of two collections of poetry—The Hitler Poems and Held Captive. She resides abroad. You can follow her on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100012703457651