Media Freedom in the U.S: Not so Rosy as Projected to Give Advice to Others

By Daya Gamage
 Asian Tribune Political Note Washington, DC.11 July

The photograph depicting a police officer handcuffing a woman we are reproducing along with this political note did not occur in a developing country or a Third World nation which more frequently receive ‘lectures’, ‘advises’ and sometimes’ reprimands’ from the United States about the virtues of press or media freedom and the importance of upholding those freedoms to safeguard or consolidate democracy.

This is the image of journalist Kristyna Wntz-Graff, whose press badge is well visible, when arrested while covering an Occupy Wall Street Protest Movement last November in New York, a protest that engulfed many major American cities against ‘corporate greed depriving the basics to the ordinary American people’.

This cannot happen in the United States which has assumed the moral responsibility in bringing democracy, free speech and media freedom and of course the right to dissent to the wider world.

The January 2012- released Reporters Without Borders in its 2011 — 2012 global Press Freedom Index said the indicators for press freedom in the U.S. are dramatic, with a downward movement from 27th to 47th in the global ranking, from the previous year.

The second photograph of a woman that we are carrying in this political note, Laura Poitras, is even more disturbing that it happened in the United States under the patronage of a cabinet-rank department in the federal government.

Ms. Poitras, a freelance journalist makes award winning controversial political films, has angered the United States authorities. A US born citizen, the US government internal security apparatus the Department of Homeland Security detained her many times at the border when she returned from her assignments abroad, confiscating her electronic devises and journalist notebooks harassing her for exercising her First Amendment right which is freedom of speech and expression, and blatantly violating her Fourth Amendment right which is searches are prohibited under the law unless obtaining a warrant from the judiciary.

How the federal authorities in the United States exercise their ‘free will’ over Ms. Laura Poitras in violating her First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights, most sacred rights enshrined in the US Constitution, will be given in detail at the end of this Asian Tribune Political Note.

While the State Department touted its press freedom record in press release this May marking the international Media Day and encouraged other countries to improve their own laws, it’s also important to critically look at the U.S.’s current approach to press freedom, in particular their statement that “the United States honors and supports media freedom at home and abroad.”

The two photographs we carry here have two amazing stories behind them whether the United States stands by its stated commitment of “honoring and supporting media freedom at home and abroad.”

The critical look at the U.S.’s current approach to press freedom in this Asian Tribune Political Note is appropriate at a time the American embassy in Sri Lanka raised concerns over media freedom in that country on July 2 following the Government of Sri Lanka’s decision to close down two internet websites and take nine journalists associated with those two sites into custody for questioning. It was reported later that the judiciary set the nine persons free as it said that there were no culpability on their part to incarcerate them.

The United States said it was closely following the case.

“We have raised on several occasions our deep concern over efforts to suppress independent news media, including the blocking of news websites, intimidation, and disappearances of journalists,” the U.S. Embassy in Colombo said in a statement.

Immediately after 9/11

Since the deadly 9/11 attacks the United States sought to restrict the press at home and abroad. Less than one month after 9/11, then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell asked the Emir of Qatar to use his influence to rein in Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based, Arabic-language satellite station funded by the Qatari government. The request stemmed from concern about the station’s alleged anti-American bias and its repeated airing of a 1998 exclusive interview with Osama bin Laden.

Three months after 9/11, the U.S.-funded worldwide broadcaster, Voice of America, issued new

guidelines barring interviews from “nations that sponsor terrorism.” The change came in response to State Department pressure after an enterprising VOA journalist for the Pashto-language service managed to get an exclusive interview with Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Afghan Taliban leader. The VOA journalist was subsequently forced out of her job.

Some media outlets also came under physical attack from U.S. forces. In November 2001, during the U.S-led campaign in Afghanistan, a U.S. missile struck the Kabul, Afghanistan bureau of Al-Jazeera. The U.S. military described the building as a “known” al-Qaeda facility without providing any evidence. In response to a Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) letter to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs General Richard Myers reiterated the U.S. military had no indications the building was being used by Al-Jazeera, even though the network had been using the building for nearly two years and had mounted several satellite dishes on its roof. More than four years later, in June 2006, the respected U.S. journalist and author Ron Suskind told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that the Kabul attack “was done on purpose, precisely to send a message to Al-Jazeera.”

Clinton Proclamation: Words and Deeds

Just couple of days ago on July 5 US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued the following statement encouraging nations to accept free flow of information:

“Today, the UN Human Rights Council adopted by consensus a resolution with the message that there can be no division or double standard regarding human rights online. The landmark resolution makes clear that all individuals are entitled to the same human rights and fundamental freedoms online as they are offline, and all governments must protect those rights regardless of the medium.

The free flow of news and information is under threat in countries around the world. We are witnessing an alarming surge in the number of cases involving government censorship and persecution of individuals for their actions online – sometimes for just a single tweet or text message.”

Popular columnist Trevor Timm in one of his submissions noted: “Journalists’ sources in the U.S. have been the hardest hit in recent years. The current administration (the Obama administration) has used the Espionage Act to prosecute a record six whistleblowers for leaking information to the press—more than the rest of the previous administrations combined. Many of these whistleblowers have exposed constitutional violations such as the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program and the CIA’s waterboarding practices—issues clearly in the public interest—and now face years in prison. Meanwhile, the Justice Department has brought no prosecutions for the crimes underlying the exposed allegations.”

He further states, “In addition, a grand jury is reportedly still investigating WikiLeaks for violations of the Espionage Act for publishing classified information—a practice that has traditionally been protected by the First Amendment and which other newspapers engage in regularly. It would not only be completely unprecedented to prosecute a publisher under the archaic statute, but would also endanger many U.S. based publications like the New York Times. And as former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley has remarked, the U.S. government’s investigation into WikiLeaks undermines the United States’ ability to pressure countries like Russia and China to allow greater press freedom.”

The U.S. also has repeatedly detained Oscar-nominated filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras, whose photograph appears in this column and her story is given below, at the border. Poitras has received critical acclaim for two films she has produced about the U.S.’ post-9/11 wars, and is in the midst of making her third film on the subject. As internet blogger Glenn Greenwald reported, “On several occasions, her reporter’s notebooks were seized and their contents copied, even as she objected that doing so would invade her journalist-source relationship,” clearly violating her rights as a reporter.

And while the State Department said in a statement marking the World Press Freedom Day in May that they “advocate for freedom of expression and raise media freedom issues, including specific cases, in bilateral discussions with other governments and in multilateral bodies,” the Obama administration has come under fire for lobbying the Yemeni government to keep a prominent Yemeni journalist Abd al-Ilah Haydar Al-Sha’i in jail. Al-Sha’i has aggressively covered civilian casualties resulting from US drone strikes in the region and has previously working for multiple US publications such as ABC News and the Washington Post.

On the local level in the U.S., many police departments have engaged in heavy-handed tactics against the press covering political protests, most notably Occupy Wall Street protests. Journalists have been harassed, assaulted and over 70 have been arrested. An assortment of news organizations led by the New York Times have formally complained to the New York Police Department about such behavior, and a recent lawsuit alleges constitutional violations stemming from such incidents.

These arrests caused the U.S. to plummet 27 places in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom rankings to 47thoverall.

Trevor Timm noted: As Justice Hugo Black once remarked, “Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.” The U.S. had demonstrated agreement with the statement applied abroad, but the only way to promote press freedom is to practice it at home as well.

Journalist Laura Poitras’ harassment


The caption of this political note ‘US media freedom is not so rosy as projected to give advice to others’ fits well to the story of Ms. Poitras’ unprecedented harassment in the hand of the united states federal authorities.

Her story was made known to the entire world by America’s foremost columnist/journalist/blogger who writes to the widely read Internet publication SALON Glenn Greenwald.

One of the more extreme government abuses of the post-9/11 era targets U.S. citizens re-entering their own country, and it has received far too little attention. With no oversight or legal framework whatsoever, the Department of Homeland Security routinely singles out individuals who are suspected of no crimes, detains them and questions them at the airport, often for hours, when they return to the U.S. after an international trip, and then copies and even seizes their electronic devices (laptops, cameras, cell phones) and other papers (notebooks, journals, credit card receipts), forever storing their contents in government files. No search warrant is needed for any of this. No oversight exists. And there are no apparent constraints on what the U.S. Government can do with regard to whom it decides to target or why.

In an age of international travel — where large numbers of citizens, especially those involved in sensitive journalism and activism, frequently travel outside the country — this power renders the protections of the Fourth Amendment entirely illusory. By virtue of that amendment, if the government wants to search and seize the papers and effects of someone on U.S. soil, it must (with some exceptions) first convince a court that there is probable cause to believe that the objects to be searched relate to criminal activity and a search warrant must be obtained. But now, none of those obstacles — ones at the very heart of the design of the Constitution — hinders the U.S. government: now, they can just wait until you leave the country, and then, at will, search, seize and copy all of your electronic files on your return. That includes your emails, the websites you’ve visited, the online conversations you’ve had, the identities of those with whom you’ve communicated, your cell phone contacts, your credit card receipts, film you’ve taken, drafts of documents you’re writing, and anything else that you store electronically: which, these days, when it comes to privacy, means basically everything of worth.

But the case of Laura Poitras, an Oscar-and Emmy-nominated filmmaker and intrepid journalist, is perhaps the most extreme. In 2004 and 2005, Poitras spent many months in Iraq filming a documentary that, as The New York Times put it in its review, “exposed the emotional toll of occupation on Iraqis and American soldiers alike.” The film, “My Country, My Country,” focused on a Sunni physician and 2005 candidate for the Iraqi Congress as he did things like protest the imprisonment of a 9-year-old boy by the U.S. military. At the time Poitras made this film, Iraqi Sunnis formed the core of the anti-American insurgency and she spent substantial time filming and reporting on the epicenter of that resistance. Poitras’ film was released in 2006 and nominated for the 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

In 2010, she produced and directed “The Oath,” which chronicled the lives of two Yemenis caught up in America’s War on Terror:

The NYT feature on “The Oath” stated that, along with “My Country, My Country,” Poitras has produced ”two of the most searching documentaries of the post-9/11 era, on-the-ground chronicles that are sensitive to both the political and the human consequences of American foreign policy.” At the 2010 Sundance film festival, “The Oath” won the award for Best Cinematography.

Poitras’ intent all along with these two documentaries was to produce a trilogy of War on Terror films, and she is currently at work on the third installment. As Poitras described it to Glenn Greenwald, this next film will examine the way in which The War on Terror has been imported onto U.S. soil, with a focus on the U.S. Government’s increasing powers of domestic surveillance, its expanding covert domestic National security Agency (NSA) activities (including construction of a massive new NSA facility in Bluffdale, Utah in the US), its attacks on whistleblowers, and the movement to foster government transparency and to safeguard Internet anonymity. In sum, Poitras produces some of the best, bravest and most important filmmaking and journalism of the past decade, often exposing truths that are adverse to U.S. government policy, concerning the most sensitive and consequential matters.

Glenn Greenwald who interviewed her says Poitras’ work has been hampered, and continues to be hampered, by the constant harassment, invasive searches, and intimidation tactics to which she is routinely subjected whenever she re-enters her own country. Since the 2006 release of “My Country, My Country,” Poitras has left and re-entered the U.S. roughly 40 times. Virtually every time during that six-year-period that she has returned to the U.S., her plane has been met by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents who stand at the airplane door or tarmac and inspect the passports of every de-planing passenger until they find her (on the handful of occasions where they did not meet her at the plane, agents were called when she arrived at immigration). Each time, they detain her, and then interrogate her at length about where she went and with whom she met or spoke. They have exhibited a particular interest in finding out for whom she works.

She has had her laptop, camera and cell phone seized, and not returned for weeks, with the contents presumably copied. On several occasions, her reporter’s notebooks were seized and their contents copied, even as she objected that doing so would invade her journalist-source relationship. Her credit cards and receipts have been copied on numerous occasions. In many instances, DHS agents also detain and interrogate her in the foreign airport before her return, on one trip telling her that she would be barred from boarding her flight back home, only to let her board at the last minute. When she arrived at JFK Airport on Thanksgiving weekend of 2010, she was told by one DHS agent — after she asserted her privileges as a journalist to refuse to answer questions about the individuals with whom she met on her trip — that he “finds it very suspicious that you’re not willing to help your country by answering our questions.” They sometimes keep her detained for three to four hours.

Greenwald says that’s the climate of fear created by the U.S. Government for an incredibly accomplished journalist and filmmaker who has never been accused, let alone convicted, of any wrongdoing whatsoever.

On April 4, 2012 night, Poitras arrived at Newark International Airport from Britain. Prior to issuing her a boarding pass in London, the ticket agent called a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agent (Yost) who questioned her about whom she met and what she did. Upon arriving in Newark, DHS/CBP agents, as always, met her plane, detained her, and took her to an interrogation room. Each time this has happened in the past, Poitras has taken notes during the entire process: in order to chronicle what is being done to her, document the journalistic privileges she asserts and her express lack of consent, obtain the names of the agents involved, and just generally to cling to some level of agency.

This time, however, she was told by multiple CBP agents that she was prohibited from taking notes on the ground that her pen could be used as a weapon. After she advised them that she was a journalist and that her lawyer had advised her to keep notes of her interrogations, one of them, CBP agent Wassum, threatened to handcuff her if she did not immediately stop taking notes. A CBP Deputy Chief (Lopez) also told her she was barred from taking notes, and then accused her of “refusing to cooperate with an investigation” if she continued to refuse to answer their questions (he later clarified that there was no “investigation” per se, but only a “questioning”).

We need to acknowledge that the United States has freedom to dissent, freedom of expression and speech than most nations in this globe. There are constitutional guarantees for such freedoms. First and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution are sacred rights of the people. Many other nations don’t have such guarantees. Nevertheless, it is not an easy journey here for the investigative journalists who are prepared to confront the government on many issues such as how the U.S. conducts the’terrorism’ war in overseas territories, its counter-terrorism war in sovereign nations such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yeman and the covert operations overseas.

We noted above the obstacles placed by the U.S. authorities for such endeavors of investigative journalism here and abroad. The U.S. needs to focus the ‘searchlight’ inwards to become a better example to other nations to promote dissent and free speech.

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