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The Real Threat to Press Freedom

Mainstream commentators have been fretting over Donald Trump’s hostile rhetoric towards the media. But Chelsea Manning's recent jailing shows that there are much graver threats to press freedom happening right under their noses.

Former American soldier and whistleblower Chelsea Manning poses during a photo call outside the Institute Of Contemporary Arts (ICA) ahead of a Q&A event on October 1, 2018 in London, England. Jack Taylor / Getty

There is an assault on press freedom. It is taking place in the United States as you read this. But if all you consume is mainstream news, chances are you haven’t heard much about it.

Donald Trump’s inauguration ushered in a seemingly ever-present alarm over the state of press freedoms in America. Trump’s labeling of US media as “the enemy of the American people” prompted many concerned responses and even a fruitless tête-à-tête between the president and the publisher of the New York Times. His revocation of CNN correspondent Jim Acosta’s press pass late last year provoked similar consternation from fellow journalists, historians, and press freedom groups, with Acosta declaring, “This is a test for all of us.” The Washington Post adopted the motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” while Steven Spielberg dropped everything to rush out The Post (“This couldn’t wait,” he said), his paean to the American press that launched a thousand think pieces.

While these are certainly all things worth getting angry about, even more outrageous are the incidents that have passed by with comparatively little mainstream notice or uproar.

Most recently, Chelsea Manning, the whisteblower who was imprisoned for seven years and tortured by the Obama administration for releasing hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks in 2010, is being re-imprisoned and held in contempt of court for refusing to testify in a grand jury appearance. (You can donate to her legal defense fund here). Manning cited her moral objections to the secrecy of grand juries, their historical use in going after activists for constitutionally protected speech, and that she’s already revealed everything she knew during her court martial.

Manning’s imprisonment is not in itself a direct assault on press freedoms. But the wider case she’s resisting is.

Manning was called to testify as part of the government’s now nearly decade-long pursuit of WikiLeaks, reportedly over its publishing Manning’s leaks as well as various other disclosures. While conventional wisdom has Trump and WikiLeaks in cahoots to subvert American democracy, in reality the Trump administration has filed secret criminal charges against Assange, which the WikiLeaks founder launched a legal challenge to unseal.

After a torrent of criticism, the Obama Justice Department in 2013 finally dropped its plans to charge Assange over the documents, realizing the threat such a prosecution posed to press freedoms. That the Trump administration now appears to be barreling ahead with this move anyway is unsurprising given the president’s hostility to journalists. More alarming is the relative silence this development has received in mainstream news reporting.

With some notable exceptions, far more ink has been spilled in mainstream media over the First Amendment implications of the Acosta controversy than over the same implications of the charges against Assange and WikiLeaks. That’s probably because, as the Associated Press put it, “much of the American media establishment holds [Assange] in contempt.” Meanwhile, the only presidential contender to take a public stance criticizing the WikiLeaks prosecution is Tulsi Gabbard.

It’s not just in the WikiLeaks case that mainstream reporting has largely ignored threats to the First Amendment under Trump. In January, the Hill’s John Solomon reported that the DOJ was working on making it easier for prosecutors to obtain journalists’ records, mostly for the purposes of leak investigations, which Trump has ramped up from Obama’s already unprecedentedly aggressive war on whisteblowers. According to the report, those backing the rule change “contend that current rules” — also known as the the US Constitution — “treat journalists as a special class,” which runs against the Founding Fathers’ belief that “all men and women were created equal.” This may be news to anyone who’s actually read the First Amendment, which specifically singles out the press.

While the ACLU unequivocally denounced this as a “pretext for tearing down protections that are more important than ever,” Solomon’s report appears to have been entirely ignored in the rest of the media, other than by the Week and, curiously, Breitbart. What’s particularly ironic about all this is that these changes weren’t spurred on by a kooky, scary Trump appointee like Matt Whitaker, but by Rod Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general whom the “Resistance” turned into an “apolitical” and “honorable” guardian of democracy for having put the Mueller investigation in motion. In 2017, Rosenstein declined to rule out prosecuting journalists, a choice that garnered far more headlines when it was later made by Trump’s pick for attorney general this past January. But of course, Obama’s war on leaks and the press was similarly spearheaded by figures firmly within the political “mainstream.”

And it was only a little over a month ago now that the Trump administration arrested Marzieh Hashemi, an African-American journalist who works for Iranian state-run broadcaster PressTV, to testify in front of a grand jury for a case that neither the public nor her family were told about. Hashemi was detained for ten days; while in custody, she was denied halal food and had her hijab confiscated.

It’s still not entirely clear what the matter was about, though it may have something to do with a US defector who allegedly went to work for the Iranian intelligence services. Still, given the amount of ink and airtime that was consumed when Trump merely banned a reporter from the White House press pool — a highhanded act to be sure, but not exactly one that jeopardizes the frontlines of investigative reporting — one would expect the arrest, imprisonment , and mistreatment of a journalist with American citizenship would elicit a fair share of outrage, if only for the precedent it set and the “norms” it eroded. But while the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement of concern, mainstream outlets were more likely to publish articles defending her detention.

That’s not even to mention the way news organizations have at times had a direct hand in censoring the work of American reporters. The increasing censorship of independent news outlets worldwide by both governments and social media monopolies is a direct outgrowth of the inflammatory, often sensationalistic reporting around fake news and Russian bots and trolls that has taken hold since Trump’s win.

A month ago, CNN itself played a leading role in Facebook’s decision to remove from the platform pages of the Russian-funded Mafflick Media, which produced and shared videos made by left-wing journalist Rania Khalek. The objection was that Mafflick did not label where it got its funding — something no outlet is actually required to do on the platform — and that the antiwar content of the videos was, according to a reporter who worked on the story, “completely in line with what we’re hearing from the Kremlin” (although another journalist who worked on the story acknowledged they were “legitimate arguments” and “nothing that would be totally out of the ordinary”).

With all due respect to CNN and Jim Acosta, all of these things — whether it’s a government spying and prosecuting journalists, or a private corporation censoring legitimate news that’s critical of government policies regardless of its funding — are far more threatening to United States press freedoms than one reporter being personally barred from the White House, as unjustified as that is. Here’s hoping the mainstream media wake up to the erosion of press freedom that’s happening right under their noses. In the meantime, support Chelsea Manning.