It’s Time to Let Journalists Do Their Jobs

As we went to press, news broke that the partner of The Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald--who helped release the Edward Snowden revelations--had been detained under British anti-terrorism laws while traveling through England on his way home to Brazil. The episode was designed to send a message to Greenwald (and all journalists) that if you publish sensitive documents, we will come after you. Just to make sure the message was clear, the border police held Greenwald's partner, David Miranda, for almost the entire 9 hours the law allowed under section 7 of the U.K.'s Terrorism Act 2000.

We may be living in a confusing time where journalism is concerned--at least from the delivery standpoint--but some things such as freedom of the press should be sacred, regardless of the medium we use to deliver the news. Apparently, the U.S. and U.K. governments didn't get that memo.

We are suddenly caught in the Twilight Zone where, in the name of stopping terrorism, governments feel they have carte blanche to do just about anything, including stomping on civil liberties and freedom of the press.

As though the border incident wasn't enough, it got even crazier in jolly old England when the GCHQ, the U.K. equivalent of the National Security Agency (NSA), demanded that The Guardian give up hard drives harboring any files Snowden might have shared with them. Putting aside for a moment the fact that there are many other copies of these files that weren't in The Guardian's offices, this was a case of the utmost intrusion by a free government into the affairs of a major newspaper, and it's beyond outrageous.

I was speechless when I heard about it.

But lest you think it's just England that's gone crazy, it's not. In May, reports came out that the Department of Justice had been collecting information about phone calls made by The Associated Press (AP) reporters, including ones coming from the press gallery in the House of Representatives.

It's not destroying hard drives, but it's a gross violation of privacy in the U.S. and crosses the line in a way I find completely unacceptable. The Snowden revelations also made it clear that even encrypted email wasn't safe. In August, investigative legal reporter Pamela Jones announced she was shutting down her Groklaw site because she conducts most of her investigations by email, and she could no longer ensure that she could protect her sources.

It's unclear whether the government can break email encryption today, but Jones worried that at some point the government or another entity would figure out how to break the encryption and expose her sources, and she was unwilling to operate this way.

We have good journalists shutting down valuable sites because the government has raised the specter of intrusion. That is, frankly, chilling to me, and it should be to everyone who values a free press and a democratic society.

Think back to Watergate and the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s: Those were trying times, and there was a lot of tension between the press and the government, but the government went through legal channels to air its grievances. The case went to the Supreme Court, and the decision stood that a free press could print leaked materials even if they had been obtained illegally.

The courts ruled that press actions were separate from those of the leakers. Today, that guarantee doesn't seem quite as clear. Today, thanks to the USA PATRIOT Act and the FISA court decisions, the government has far more sweeping investigative powers with little or no court oversight, and, yes, that includes the power to harass individual journalists or powerful news organizations.

During the recently completed Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning trial, there was a big debate about defining a "journalist." If she hadn't leaked classified information to a real journalist, she could use a whistle-blower defense. As one friend put it the other day: Freedom of the press was never reserved for those who owned a press or who worked for a news organization. It protected all forms of communication whether written, spoken, or printed, and that would extend to the internet today.

It's time we remembered our press is supposed to be free, and we need to stop harassing journalists directly or indirectly, whether through fear or legal intimidation. I don't know about you, but I'm mad as hell, and this has got to stop.