The funny part about promoting human rights abroad is you typically have to have it down pat at home. That's why when China comes out with its own human rights report to coincide with the U.S. State Department's most of us let out a sad, ironic chuckle. What I am finding truly ironic these days, however, is an Obama administration that condemns violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Syria, China and the like, yet goes about unraveling the Declaration and the U.S. Constitution at home.
Peter Van Buren, a State Department employee, was suspended on October 18th and is now temporarily unemployed because he dared to publish Wikileaks documents on his blog .
Two weeks ago, the Department of Justice filed an appeal in a bid to force New York Times reporter James Risen to testify about his confidential sources in the trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer who is accused of leaking top-secret information.
The U.S. Constitution, in the first article of the Bill of Rights, protects the freedom of the press and of speech. In public opinion, laws and court decisions Americans have come to understand that the Constitution demands this freedom because they believe no society can be truly free, democratic and free from tyranny if any individual's right to speak openly is censored in any way. Van Buren, Risen and Sterling did not yell fire in a crowded theater, rather they exercised their citizen's duty to tell information vital to the public interest. The attempts by the Obama administration to censor and intimidate Van Buren, Risen and Sterling is not just a problem for international human rights, it is a problem for the U.S.' own Constitution.
The world over, repressive governments censor or blackout the press and the Internet to shield itself from the forces of social change. Disturbing then to see the same thing happening in the United States. Even since the beginning of the OccupyTogether movement, we've seen reporters arrested for "disorderly conduct" and "failure to disperse," although they were not protesters. A Fox5 TV crew was attacked by police while covering an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in New York on October 5th. Cameraman Roy Isen received pepper spray in his eyes while reporter Dick Brennan was hit in the stomach by a police baton. A police statement said the two journalists were "inadvertently" struck when police resisted a charge by protesters. Natasha Lennard, a freelance journalist and contributor to a New York Times blog, was held for five hours in a police truck on October 1st because she did not have a NYPD press pass. She was arrested along with 700 people during the Occupy Wall Street march across the Brooklyn Bridge. Kristen Gwynne of the AlterNet web-magazine suffered the same fate at the same place on the same day. John Farley, a journalist with the magazine MetroFocus, was arrested while covering an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in New York on September 24th, despite wearing a badge identifying him as a reporter. He was held for eight hours.
The ThinkProgress website has meanwhile reported that Yahoo! Mail censored emails containing the words "Occupy Wall Street." When users tried to send a message with this phrase, they got the following notification: "Suspicious activity has been detected on your account. To protect your account and our users, your message has not been sent."
Apparently, U.S. Internet users now have something in common with China's Internet users, where several new keyword combinations are being blocked online. It is impossible to search for a combination of the word "occupy" and the name of a Chinese city, for example, "Occupy Beijing" (占领北京) or "Occupy Shanghai"(占领上海...), because the authorities clearly fear the spread of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement.
Speaking of Internet usage and social media, we also learned that San Francisco transportation system BART wants to establish a policy to limit cellphone service blackouts to "extraordinary" circumstances threatening train service or public safety.
The irony is obvious: while developing techniques to make it impossible to shut down the Internet in, say, Afghanistan for example, officials in the U.S. are doing the opposite within their own borders. A bill was introduced in the Senate on October 26th, that allows the U.S. government to go after anyone who builds a tool designed for the "circumvention" of or "bypassing" a blocked website.
The Obama administration's policy moves, contradictions and failures create dangerous precedents for freedom of information. If the United States legitimizes cellphone blackouts, intimidates or forces reporters for their sources or fails to open any investigation on reporters arrested on their soil, they could also be viewed as an offender of freedom of information and therefore undermine their own democracy policy inside and abroad. Americans need and deserve better freedom of information, not less. I hope there is a chance thanks to public outcry. But more Americans need to stand up and fight for freedom of information before they find themselves deprived of it. It is up to to the people to demand it and fight for it.
Reporters Without Borders launched a video contest on October 17th asking American students to make a video telling why freedom of information is important. The winning PSA will be aired on CNN on World Press Freedom Day.