The ongoing assault on whistleblowers is hardly a secret given the media’s recent coverage of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning. But what about the journalists? They play an important role in the process as well, by publicizing the leaked information the public has the right to know. Unfortunately, however, these reporters are often not immune from prosecution… despite the First Amendment protection that indicates otherwise.
While several U.S. politicians and pundits have embarrassingly called for Glenn Greenwald to stand trial for publishing information Snowden furnished him with, other journalists have actually gone to jail for similar actions. Here are four recent instances that may have you thinking twice about the United States’s commitment to “freedom of the press.”
1. James Risen
Although not technically in jail yet, James Risen is most likely about to receive significant prison time for refusing to name an informant. Risen, a New York Times reporter, included classified information in a book he wrote about the CIA. The government believes that the leak came from former CIA employee Jeffrey Sterling and is compelling Risen to testify at his trial.
Despite plenty of precedent to the contrary, a U.S. court ruled that Risen must cooperate in this instance or face prison. True to journalistic standards, Risen has vowed to stay silent on his source, no matter the consequences. He claims that the American government now uses the excuse “you can’t publish that because of the national security risk” almost anytime anyone reports on something unfavorable about it, which has turned investigative journalism into a joke.
2. Barrett Brown
Journalist Barrett Brown currently faces more than 100 years in jail for posting tens of thousands of emails that hacktivist group Anonymous attained from HBGary, a private internet security firm with ties to the U.S. government. Given its large size, Brown linked to the emails before even knowing most of its content, so the charges are pretty extreme. Some of the emails wound up containing incriminating tidbits about nefarious plots to take out Wikileaks and other whistleblowers, as well as unethical relationships between corporations and government officials.
While the Brown saga is far too complex to summarize in a couple of paragraphs, The Nation’s more thorough coverage is certainly an entertaining if not alarming read. The fact that the prosecution is now requesting a gag order to prevent all involved parties from speaking to the press further suggests that the impending trial is about keeping the content secret and punishing someone for helping to publicize the information in the first place.
3. Dozens of Journalists Covering the Occupy Movement
No matter how many times police forces were publicly shamed for infringing on reporters’ First Amendment rights to cover the Occupy Wall Street protests, the arrests continued to happen. The message was clear: not only did the powers that be not want these protests occurring, they also didn’t want anyone to have information about them.
Granted, journalists covering the movement were rarely in a jail cell for more than a day, but the fact that reporters were routinely apprehended even after showing their press credentials or instructed to steer clear of the area altogether is highly problematic. Problematic enough, in fact, that it was listed as one of many reasons that police response to the political actions were illegal and a violation of human rights.
4. Abdulelah Haider Shaye
The Obama administration has not only had an impact on imprisoning American journalists, but those abroad as well. Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye was one of the first to ever report on the U.S. drone program after an attack killed 41 people (mostly women and children) in Yemen in 2009. Despite a massive cover-up to divert blame, Shaye correctly fingered the American government as the perpetrators. After reporting the truth, Shaye was charged with falsified counts of “terrorism” at the apparent request of President Obama.
When the public and press freedom groups expressed outrage, the Yemeni president prepared to pardon Shaye. However, the day before the pardon was to be officially issued, Obama personally called President Ali Abdullah Saleh to urge him to follow through on jailing Shaye, who was subsequently convicted in a kangaroo court. Ultimately, Shaye was released last month after spending three years in jail for what most political analysts agree was nothing more than reporting on a secret Obama didn’t want exposed.
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