By Hagit Limor, 2010-11 SPJ President | December 9th, 2010
I’m arming myself with some super-thick skin for the slings and arrows sure to follow. These words will result in my being called names from “sympathizer” to “traitor” to “un-American” and worse.
But I can’t stay silent any more.
For those of you who disagree — and isn’t it wonderful that we can do so freely and (hopefully) with mutual respect? — I will make it clear from the beginning that this blog post is my personal opinion, not a Society statement.
I just can’t stand by without lamenting what I see as a dangerous slippery slope that many of us are sidestepping in the name of patriotism or political correctness.
Julian Assange is no more a spy than my 77-year-old lifelong stay-at-home mother. I may disagree with his methods and philosophy, and I certainly would never publish information that would risk life or country. I know of no professional journalist who would. I am no apologist for Assange or WikiLeaks. As a journalist I have deep concerns about motivation, as I do for every source on every story.
But to call for his arrest? His execution? To charge another country’s citizen with treason to the United States? First it’s Assange, next it’s the New York Times, next it’s you or me, if we don’t toe the line on an increasingly McCarthyistic spiraling chain of events.
I’m a patriotic citizen. I’ve missed few elections in my adult life. I believe democracy represents the best governmental model. But we only feed the conspiracy theorists when a) a Swedish prosecutor drops two rape cases for lack of evidence; b) word leaks of the impending WikiLeaks data disclosures; c) a prosecutor in a different Swedish jurisdiction whose biography (according to press reports) says she specializes in “extradition work” resurrects the rape charges; d) the UK’s Independent reports “informal discussions have already taken place between U.S. and Swedish officials” over the possibility of extraditing Assange.
Under what charges? If treason doesn’t hold up, our sage leaders have come up with a cleverly worded proposed new law, the Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination Act. I’m sure it’s a coincidence for the acronym to be the SHIELD Act. Not to be confused with the barely-on-life-support proposed federal Shield law that journalism groups including SPJ have been pushing hard the past two years. It would grant reporters the right to protect anonymous sources except on matters that endanger national security. That bill, passed overwhelmingly by voice vote in the House, has twisted in the wind after select senators refused to allow a vote on their floor. Now rather than a shield law to protect journalists and their sources, we get a proposed SHIELD Act that threatens our work and workers instead.
Make no mistake. The SHIELD Act, which labels anyone who disseminates classified information as a “transnational threat”, doesn’t just target the Julian Assanges of this world. That language includes anyone, source or journalist included, who publishes information the government classified, even with no national or personal security threat. Elsberg, Woodward, Bernstein and Bradlee? All criminals. Some of those involved with the Valerie Plame mess might watch their backs. As should thousands of reporters and publishers who challenge some of what the government classifies merely to avoid embarrassment. And the thousands of bloggers who then re-publish. Even grandma who then emails her family repeating such information could be guilty of dissemination.
I’m reminded of Pastor Martin Niemoller’s oft-quoted passage regarding those who watched silently as the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s and 1940s. “They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up.”
I’m speaking up. Already the SHIELD Act has expanded the list of classified information it would be considered criminal to publish. That list is sure to widen with time and with silence. The only shield this law would provide is one for government officials to hide increasing amounts of information from its citizens.
Mark as “Exhibit One” Sen. Joe Lieberman’s call on the Justice Department to investigate the New York Times for publishing articles based on the leaked cables. The Senate Homeland Security chairman called the stories “at least an act of bad citizenship” and possibly “a crime.” The only crime would have occurred if the Times had not vetted, confirmed, and then published information in the public interest that doesn’t endanger lives. That would have been bad citizenship and an abdication of the paper’s duty to serve as a watchdog, as set forth by our Founding Fathers.
I found it the ultimate in Orwellian-style double-speak to hear the same State Department spokesman who denounced Assange one day, announce the next day that the United States would be hosting the 2011 UNESCO World Press Freedom Day, claiming an “enduring commitment” to “the free flow of information in this digital age.” In the same breath, P.J. Crowley said, “New media has empowered citizens around the world” and “We are concerned about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals.”
That only works if the majority of individuals stay silent themselves.
Hagit Limor, an investigative reporter at WCPO-TV, is the 2010-11 SPJ President.