Tag Archives: free speech

Let He with the Best Solicitor Speak Freely

This week has seen legal attacks not only on the LGBT community in Ireland but on the freedom of speech in Irish journalism as a whole.

The controversy began when Rory O’Neill, alter-ego of Dublin gay icon and pub-owner Panti Bliss, was interviewed on RTE’s Saturday Night Show on the  11th January.

The interview was going well until O’Neill attempted to discuss some of the prejudices still facing members of the LGBT community. O’Neill said that of course things has changed over time but that it there were still difficult to deal with the kind unpleasantness found “the internet in the comments and people who make a living writing opinion pieces for newspapers”. When pressed for examples O’Neill named John Waters, Breda O’Brien and the Iona Institute.

Not long after it was posted the interview was taken for “legal issues” following complaints made. When the interview was re-posted on line, all discussion of homophobia was edited out. A transcript of the missing section can be found here.

Now this obvious and upsetting piece of censorship was discussed eloquently by Trinity News writer Matthew in ‘Ignorance Isn’t Panti Bliss’ which was widely shared on social media in the outrage that followed.

O’Neill himself has received soliciter’s letters personally from Breda O’Brien, David Quinn, Patricia Casey, and John Murray (all of the Iona Institute the highly-conservative lobby group) and from John Waters.

John Waters, being the Irish Times columnist who wrote that the “gay lobby” want “to destroy the institution of marriage because they’re envious of it” and who is absolutely no way homophobic of course.

This is not the first time the head and founder of the Iona Institute, David Quinn, has silenced his critics or those of Iona with the threat of legal action.

Just last year David Quinn forced the University Times to retracted two articles it had published criticising the Iona Institute’s controversial YouTube video ‘The Case for Man/Woman Marriage‘ with threats of legal action. When Trinity News published an article describing these events, they themselves were contacted by his solicitor, as was published by the College Tribune.

It’s worth noting at this point that mostly the news outlets brave enough to risk Quinn’s legal wrath have been student publications with far less legal support than mainstream media.

‘Defamation,’ the common thread to these claims, is a slightly complicated piece of Irish law though it’s outlined brilliantly in relation to this case here. But ultimately nothing that is true can be legally considered defamation. Is the claim that the Iona Institute, Breda O’Brien and John Waters homophobic, not one of a opinion that O’Neill as a gay man is entitled to have?

Even outside of the range of opinion and in analysis of statements made against Same Sex Marriage by all three that they work against the mainstream of the LGBT civil rights movement is not a matter for debate, as is outlined in an analysis of statement here.

But I believe the real problem is that frequently it is not a question of whether those getting served with Quinn’s legal complaints are legally in the wrong but whether than can afford to run the risk that a judge might side with a wealthy, prominent public figure over them. Deeper pockets wins the debate; which is a scary thought for the future of journalism in Ireland.

Where does the argument for “defamation of character” end? How do we hold people accountable for defaming their own characters? Because the journalists and others Quinn has targeted are not in a position to stop his organisation publishing or operating, they are simply stating that they disagree. But Quinn’s actions serve to silence the opposition entirely. This incident certainly begs the question whether a wealthy, public figure can be held accountable for the offense his organisation causes so many people. 

And much more importantly when will we stop letting those with the most cash on hand, and the best solicitors dictate what is and is not fair debate?

Glenn Greenwald and the Intimidation of Journalists

It is both a good and bad time to be a journalist. The internet means there’s more access to information, it’s easier to make yourself heard without a big news agency behind you and news breaks from around the world in moments. But it is also a dangerous time to be a journalist, every day it seems like someone has found a new way to spy on you, more journalists are in jail as of last year than any other time in the last decade and it seems like people are having more and more trouble deciding what a journalist is.

Photo from UN - Sec Gen briefs Journalists
Photo from UN – Sec Gen briefs Journalists

The US Senate seems to think you need some corporation or agency behind you to be a journalist or that it matters how long you’ve been employed. I’ve talked about this before and I disagree. I believe it is the lengths you go to in order to share the truth with the public, to information and educate and provide the context to understand the world we’re in, that makes you a journalist. However those criteria discount many of the overpaid talking heads the Senate seems to have had in mind.

brown

I’ve also already written about the deeply troubling story of Barrett Brown’s arrest and imprisonment after months of harassment by the FBI for investigating military contracting that the US government would have rathered he hadn’t. Glenn Greenwald was the journalist who first broke the documents leaked by former NSA consultant Edward Snowden.

The reaction to the revelations of widespread illegal surveillance by the NSA was surprising. Rather than turning on their government, many mainstream American journalists turned on Greenwald, calling him an “activist” or a “blogger” rather than a journalist.

Then in August, while travelling between Berlin and their home in Rio, Greenwald’s partner David Miranda was stopped and held for 9 hours under the UK’s terrorism powers.

“One US security official told Reuters that one of the main purposes of the British government’s detention and questioning of Miranda was to send a message to recipients of Snowden’s materials, including the Guardian, that the British government was serious about trying to shut down the leaks.” However it is not part of British law that terrorism powers can be used simply to “send a message”.

Lord Falconer is a qualified barrister and the former UK lord chancellor and he helped write the terrorism powers act and he says: “schedule 7 powers can only be used

“for the purpose of determining whether the detained person is a terrorist. The use of the power to detain and question someone who the examining officer knows is not a terrorist is plainly not for this purpose, so it would neither be within the spirit nor the letter of the law. There is no suggestion that Miranda is a terrorist, or that his detention and questioning at Heathrow was for any other reason than his involvement in his partner Glenn Greenwald’s reporting of the Edward Snowden story.”

During Miranda’s 9 hour illegal detention in Heathrow, his phone, laptop and external hard drive were confiscated. He was forced to give up the passwords to his social media sites.

It’s hardly as if British security forces thought that Miranda was hiding classified material on Twitter. No, this was a tactic of intimidation and humiliation.

Photograph: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

When Greenwald said in an interview that he would continue to report on Snowden documents that had not yet been released it was reported as if he were vowing some mad revenge scheme.

“The US and UK governments are apparently entitled to run around and try to bully and intimidate anyone, including journalists – “to send a message to recipients of Snowden’s materials, including the Guardian”, as Reuters put it – but nobody is allowed to send a message back to them. That’s a double standard that nobody should accept.”

Then on Monday the 19th of August only days after Miranda’s detention, editor-in-chief of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, revealed that UK authorities had been threaten the Guardian UK for weeks if they did not destroy all their materials provided by Edward Snowden.

Agents were then sent to supervise the physical destruction of hard drives in the paper’s basement. Rusbridger described the behaviour as “thuggish” but also useless as of course there were multiple copies around the world so they achieved nothing but, in Greenwald’s own words, to make “themselves look incompetently oppressive”.

The destroyed hard disc and Macbook that held information leaked by Edward Snowden Photograph: Roger Tooth

Multiple journalist protection  and human rights organisations around the world have condemned these acts of intimidation and attempted censorship by the British government, including the Committee to Protect Journalists among others.

The British government are not alone in believing it can silence dissent. Russian authorities have a history of dealing harshly with critical press but recently has cracked down on those reporting on problems around construction in Sochi in preparation for the 2014 Olympics. Azerbaijan has similarly targeted journalists and academics.

There must be vigilance and caution when observing attempting abuses of journalistic freedoms, particularly in countries such as the UK and US that previously so highly valued their freedom of the press.

Reading the story of the detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner and the following harassment of the Guardian, should concern everyone. It should frighten people. The censorship of the press, intimidating and threatening a journalist’s family are hardly the precursors to good times. In fact I would go out on a limb and say that they are a consistent and undeniable sign that we are losing control of government agencies allegedly in place to protect us. Unfortunately we are now subject to them regardless of what country we are citizens of, rather than the agencies being subject to the will of their citizens.

Why the Trial of Barrett Brown Should Scare You

Barrett Brown (32) is an American freelance journalist who has written for the Guardian, Vanity Fair and the Huffington Post. He is facing the prospect of a 105 year jail sentence.

In 2009, Brown set up Project PM which was “dedicated to investigating private government contractors working in the secretive fields of cybersecurity, intelligence and surveillance”. Then in 2010 the actions of Wiki Leaks and the brutal treatment of Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning inspire Brown to dedicate himself to online activist and transparency projects.

It was through this that he came into contact with the ‘hacktivist’ collective Anonymous. Not as a hacker, but as someone who discussed and defended the group to the media, without actually being a member.

brown

Then in 2011 Anonymous hacked the computer systems of private intelligence firm HB Gary Federal and released thousands of incriminating emails such as the firm trying to persuade Bank of America to hire them to discredit Wiki Leaks supporters. This was followed by the 2012 leak of emails from Stratfor, another private security firm.

It was ultimately Brown’s investigations of these two firms that led to his harassment by the FBI. In March 2012 his apartment was broken into and searched for information pertaining to HB Gary and Stratfor, various documents were seized but they did not have a warrant for his arrest at this point. Ultimately the FBI found Brown at his mother’s house where they demanded his laptop, which he denied having. Over the months that followed, agents continued to harass Brown and threatened to arrest and indict his mother for “harbouring” Brown or helping him conceal documents.

Then in September, Brown posted a YouTube video in which he talked about how FBI agents had threatened to ruin his life. In the emotional video he threatened to “destroy” one of his harassers FBI agent Robert Smith, who had threatened his mother. There were no physical threats issued.

This allowed the FBI to arrest Brown on the charge of threatening a Federal agent. Once he was in custody they found other charges to hold him on such as trafficking in stolen goods for sharing a URL to the leaked emails with some of his colleagues, as well as the more ludicrous charge of credit card fraud as some of the emails contained credit card information which it was clear he had never used.

Brown has now spent a year in prison awaiting trial.

These are the facts that are widely known by those who support him but have been mostly ignored by mainstream media. Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian, has been consistent in his support of Brown. Greenwald himself as faced harassment due to his work with whistleblower Edward Snowden.

“Both prongs of prosecutorial abuse are clearly present in Brown’s case. There is no evidence that the link he posted to already published documents resulted in any unauthorized use of credit cards, and certainly never redounded in any way to his benefit. More important, this prosecution is driven by the same plainly improper purpose that drove the one directed at Aaron Swartz and so many others: the desire to exploit the power of criminal law to deter and severely punish anyone who meaningfully challenges the government’s power to control the flow of information on the internet and conceal its vital actions…What the US government counts on above all else is that the person it targets is unable to defend themselves against the government’s unlimited resources” – Glenn Greenwald

What should be highlighted here for everyone, not only journalists, is the implication that linking to stolen information could be deemed illegal, by extension making investigations into many kinds of clandestine activities also illegal.

The prospect of the American government giving itself the authority to control what the public should and should not know is not new.

However the idea that you can be charged simply for reading something available to the public online is incredibly worrying.

This particularly should worry any American readers but given recent revelations about the NSA have made it clear that the US government believe it has the right to monitor citizens of other countries as well this is a matter which affects everyone.

Think about your Facebook profiles, your Twitter feeds, your Tumblr dashboard and think of all the links you click on or share every week. This trial has the potential to create legal precedent to have you be legally responsible for information you find online.

Even outside of the bigger picture, the charges still do not make sense. How can the prosecution argue that Brown is legally culpable for the information he possessed and not the dozens of other journalists, from various media outlets such as the New York Times, who reported on the information, most of whom must have read the material as well?

Not only that but the US Department of Justice have now issued a gag order on Brown and his legal team, preventing them from talking to other journalists or “members of any television, radio, newspaper, magazine, internet (including, but not limited to, bloggers), or other media organization about this case”.

Brown’s lawyer, Ahmed Ghappour, has stated that this gag order is a violation of Brown’s 1st Amendment rights as a writer who has continued to work from behind bars on issues not pertaining to his own case or his prosecution.

Now not only can journalists be punished for critical writing about their government but once arrested cannot speak to other members of the press. The ways in which this threatens the right to freedom of expression are obvious and deeply concerning.

The General Secretary of Reporters Without Borders came out in defense of Brown saying:

Above all, Barrett was an investigative journalist who was merely doing his professional duty by looking into the Stratfor emails, an affair of public interest…Threatening a journalist with a possible century-long jail sentence is a scary prospect for journalists investigating the intelligence government contractor industry”.

From start to finish this has been a targeted attack on a journalist who did his job. The US attorney’s office have made claims they know do not hold weight in attempts to discredit, bankrupt and silence Brown. I would go so far as to say that Barrett Brown is a political prison of the US state.

To learn more detail about the trial or to donate to Brown’s legal fund go to Free Brown Brown dot org. The persecution of investigative journalists puts all civil liberties at risk and must not be ignored.

Orla-Jo

Freedom of the Press

The internet has allowed greater freedom of the press than ever before in human history but many governments have shown tendencies to try to combat this freedom wherever they can.

Reporters Without Borders is an NGO dedicated to protecting journalists and the rights of the press.

“Every year, some 500 journalists are arrested, 1,000 assaulted or threatened, and over 500 media outlets censored. All of these violations have serious consequences which need to be tracked in order to better counteract them.” – RSF

They also campaign against internet censorship, teach about online security and provide support for online journalists.

“Netizens now play an essential role in the vanguard of news coverage worldwide. However, more and more often, they are becoming victims of threats and censorship by governments who fear this new cyberspace of freedom.”

Organisations like this are becoming increasingly necessary with the climate of censorship and harassment of the press that appears to be growing more prevalent in countries that would have previously supporting a free media.

UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré
UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

The US have traditionally taken great pride in their press freedoms but in recent years have found ways to undermine any attempts at investigative journalism.

In May this year the US Department of Justice seized the calls records of the Associated Press (AP) without being given warning or told why the records were needed, no warrant was issued. Whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden or Barrett Brown have all mean met with severe punishment or been forced to flee the country.

Not only that but one of the documents that Chelsea Manning is accused of having passed to WikiLeaks is a video proving that a US helicopter was responsible for the killing of two Reuters reporters as well as multiple Iraqi civilians.

Barrett Brown is facing charges that could add up to 105 years in federal prison for simply investigating the actions of a private security company. Jeremy Hammod, pleaded guilty to hacking the email account of Stratfor and released hundreds of emails that contained sensitive information including discussions of possible assassinations. Brown linked colleagues to a public URL that contained the emails. This is the reason he is being charged with “trafficking” in stolen goods.

“Barrett Brown is not a hacker, he is not a criminal…He did not infiltrate any systems, nor did he appear to have the technical expertise to do so. Above all, Barrett was an investigative journalist who was merely doing his professional duty by looking into the Stratfor emails, an affair of public interest. The sentence of 105 years in prison that he is facing is absurd and dangerous” – Reporters Without Borders General Secretary, Christophe Deloire.

In the last week, a gag order has been placed not only on Brown himself but on all his lawyers forcing them to refrain from: “any statement to members of any television, radio, newspaper, magazine,  internet (including, but not limited to, bloggers), or other media organization about this case”.

In response to trends like these, Pieter Omtzigt of the European People’s Party has tabled a motion for a resolution regulating surveillance programmes and protecting whistleblowers on July 31th in the Council of Europe. 

The proposed resolution would call on member states to regulate and control surveillance, protect whistleblowers on a national level and spark an investigation by the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights. This committee has previously shed light on CIA inference and secret detention centres.

All over the world, journalists continue to be at risk. A month ago journalists were attacked by soldiers in Sri Lanka for covering a protest against the pollution of a local water source. Four atheist bloggers were arrested and one imprisoned in Bangladesh. Authorities in Myanmar have consisted sought to curb the media and have now banned Time magazine for it’s discussion of militantly, radical Buddhist groups.

It is the purpose and responsibility of journalists to critically report on world events but far greater protections for these reporters need to be implemented.

Tanzanian radio broadcaster Phot credit: UNESCO /Jonathas Mello
Tanzanian radio broadcaster Photo credit: UNESCO /Jonathas Mello