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The US’s Long and Sordid HIstory of Persecuting Journalists


Did anyone really not expect this? Reporters Without Borders docks the United States 14 places versus last year — from 32nd to 46th worldwide — in its 2014 World Press Freedom Index.

Citing the Obama administration’s abuse of the Espionage Act to harass journalists and sources, the imprisonment of US Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, threats of arrest and even assassination of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, harassment of journalists assisting him in informing the public and a threatened 105 years in prison for journalist Barrett Brown for posting a link on a web site, RWB designates the US one of two “New World giant setting a bad example” (the other is Brazil).

These criticisms are reasonable and just, but RWB is mistaken in asserting that the US “for a long time was the embodiment of an established democracy where civil liberties reign supreme.” In fact, the US government has a long and sordid record of persecuting journalists, dating back nearly to its founding.

From criminal prosecutions of writers for “libeling” the second and third presidents of the United States to wartime censorship (not solely of important military information, even were that a reasonable excuse, but explicitly to ensure adherence to the regime’s policy lines) to morals “Comstockery” to hounding and criminal prosecution of anyone revealing embarrassing truths at inopportune moments, the American state has always treated “civil liberties” as mere conveniences to be suppressed any time they become inconveniences.

The real question raised by the continuing US slide in RWB’s rankings is: Why, in recent years, has the US found press freedom less congenial to its goals than usual and increasingly acted to suppress it?

Or, to put it in context: Why, among the world’s emerging authoritarian managerial states in the first half of the 20th century, was the US willing to accommodate more press freedom as a matter of course than Mussolini, Hitler, Franco or Stalin … and what’s changed lately to reduce its willingness to tolerate journalists and their sources?

The answer is that while those other four rulers came to power via open political violence and considered themselves (for good reason) beset from the beginnings of their reigns, the US national security state evolved more slowly and with less dissent. Its institutions weren’t overthrown; they adapted. The illusions of consensus and consent, carefully tended for most of the state’s history, were preserved relatively intact, passed down from largely apocryphal “old republic” to “New Deal” to “Great Society” to “Morning in America” to post-9/11 banana republic.

Why not let the birds squawk? They’re caged, the door is secure and when, as happens now and again, the noise becomes irritating, the state can just drop a dark cloth over the cage for a few hours of peace and quiet.

But  Julian Assange pulled the cloth off the cage, Chelsea Manning pried the door open and Edward Snowden flew the coop. Barrett Browning’s wings are clipped and they’ve put a muzzle on his beak, but it’s too little, too late. Barack Obama, Keith Alexander and Mike Rogers can’t call a press conference lately without Glenn Greenwald swooping in to drop a load of something messy on their heads in public.

“Press freedom” is falling by the wayside because it now threatens the American state. Those illusions of consensus and consent served American politicians long and well, but now they’re dissolving and exposing American government as an instrument of naked force like all others.

We can have freedom — freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of any and every kind — or we can have political government. We can’t have both.

Thomas L. Knapp is Senior News Analyst at the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org).

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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